While historically the military has been one of the world's biggest fossil fuel consumers, in recent years it has moved to the front lines of alternative and renewable energy investments. The U.S. Department of Defense has committed to 680 alternative energy projects, driven by the fact that shifting to cleaner fuels not only benefits the environment, but also, ultimately, because it "reduces energy dependency, helps protect service members and costs less money," according to Department of Defense spokesperson Mark Wright.
One of the major goals of the energy projects is to cut down on petroleum use, and one of the ways the military is doing this is through investments in alternative fuel vehicles, such as plug-in electric vehicles and energy storage. And like many military projects that drive technological innovation, the benefits will eventually be shared by everyone.
A recent report by Navigant Research estimates that the U.S. military will more than double its current $435 million spending on alternative fuel vehicles by 2020, mostly through investments in plug-in electric and hybrid-electric vehicles for non-tactical purposes (i.e., vehicles used for administrative or operative support of military functions). Based on interviews with Department of Defense officials and alternative fuel vehicle acquisition policies, Navigant predicts this investment will result in the military acquiring nearly 100,000 electric vehicles within the decade.
Scott Shepard, a lead researcher on the report, said that although "[Department of Defense] investment in [plug-in electric vehicles] will not drive mainstream interest in plug-in electric vehicles," the military investments may well help drive the technology development in advancing plug-in vehicles.
Vehicle-to-grid technology is one of these exciting developments. Some of the military's planned plug-in vehicle fleets will work as part of microgrids through vehicle-to-grid connections. Vehicle-to-grid-enabled plug-in electric vehicles act as energy storage units when plugged in, able to store energy, and then release it to the grid when needed. In Japan, vehicle-to-grid programs are already in place.
In military application, the vehicle-to-grid plug-in electric vehicles would support power security in established microgrids, even during energy instability or emergency situations -- qualities that make such a setup clearly advantageous to the military. Vehicle-to-grid-enabled microgrids are already underway in bases in Hawaii and Colorado, and plans for expansion have been announced.
Outside of microgrids, vehicle-to-grid plug-in electric vehicles can potentially produce revenue from frequency regulation services for larger grids -- a benefit that is "of specific interest to the military," according to Scott Shepard. The military clearly wants to save fuel and money, and electric vehicles and battery storage are a smart way to do that.
For the rest of us, technical and regulatory challenges still prevent mass vehicle-to-grid adoption in the U.S., but the University of Delaware is testing the vehicle-to-grid technology in civilian lifestyles with a fleet of vehicle-to-grid-enabled electric Mini Coopers, and earning nearly $2,000 per vehicle every year for energy storage and grid-balancing services. If the military investments in vehicle-to-grid technology can open the window for public use, the benefits from getting paid to plug in will likely make plug-in electric vehicles more attractive to new car buyers.
Already we're seeing companies take interest in consumer-based energy storage. For example, a rule by the California Public Utilities Commission requires investor-owned utilities to incorporate 1325 MW of electrical energy storage in their systems by 2020-including 200 MW of customer-side storage, which may involve vehicle-to-grid plug-in electric vehicles in the future.
Leandra Cooper is an intern for the Sierra Club's Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative.