Pentagon's Robyn: DoD Is 'Very Energy Inefficient'

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There are two ways to shrink the country's carbon footprint. One is by coming up with less carbon-intensive sources of energy supply -- solar panels, wind turbines, shale natural gas -- and swapping them in for (primarily) coal. The other is by reducing demand through traditional conservation (just use less) or efficiency. You'd think that energy efficiency would be an easy win. Get more from the same amount of energy! Who could be opposed to that?

And indeed, here at the Washington Ideas Forum, the Department of Defense's Dorothy Robyn said that DoD could enable innovation in energy efficiency. Robyn is in charge of the department's numerous buildings and installations: 300,000 buildings sitting on 500 bases. That's 2.2 billion square feet of space and 28 million acres of land. Add up the energy bill for all that stuff and it comes to $4 billion.

Washington Ideas Forum - Full CoverageSo, it makes sense that Robyn would be excited about energy efficiency. She wants to save money for the department. "We are a big infrastructure owner and it is very energy inefficient," Robyn said. She quoted energy secretary Steven Chu who has called efficiency as "not just the low-hanging fruit but the fruit laying on the ground."

DoD is a perfect place to deploy some of the early-stage efficiency technologies because they can be both co-researcher and customer. "We're uniquely positioned to be a test-bed for next-generaiton energy technology," Robyn said. "There are market failures that keep this technology from getting commercialized. Because we have 300,000 buildings, we approach this problem different and say, let us be the early adopter. We have a rich testing and evaluation culture. We like to try out risky things and see how well they work."

DoD can help certify technologies. Then, as soon as they're done -- unlike the Department of Energy -- they can roll them out at scale. It seems like such a win-win. DoD saves money and serves as part of the answer to the energy challenge, particularly global warming. Plus, it dodges all the difficult politics of supporting new energy supply technologies like solar with government dollars.

But Rob Atkinson, who runs the thinktank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said there's a hitch in that rosy portrait. Efficiency is a good thing, but it's only a "transitional" strategy. Countries like China and India can't reduce the increases in their carbon emissions with efficiency alone. They will need new clean technologies, which means spending money on R&D. Low-carbon energy technologies are necessary to combat global warming on the proper scale. "It's not American warming, it's global warming," Atkinson said.

Unfortunately, it is also American politics. So the country's transportation and energy infrastructure creaks forward in time with our bickering. Only partial solutions -- like limited deployments of energy efficiency technology -- can garner political momentum. The really tough work of funding our infrastructure at a level that just keeps it from getting worse (let alone making it cleaner or smarter) goes undone, Atkinson said.

Progress in the energy space has moved much slower than anticipated as Siemens CEO Eric Spiegel, who shared the stage with Atkinson and Robyn, noted. "If you'd told me a few years ago where we'd be now, I would have said, 'No way we're only [that far],'" Spiegel said.

View the full session at FORA.tv.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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