RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And, the largest user of energy in this country is by far the U.S. military. Its energy bill runs around $15 billion a year. The Pentagon is looking for alternative ways to meet its energy needs, and that's led to a surprising alliance between the military and clean technology companies. This comes at a time when renewable energy producers are not too popular in Washington. Amy Standen of member station KQED has this report.
AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: From a military standpoint, oil isn't just expensive and hard to transport. It's a liability.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This burned-out tanker exploded in Pakistan, killing at least 16 people.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: NATO oil tankers on fire, and flames and smoke climbing high into the sky.
STANDEN: Last year, there were more than a thousand attacks on U.S. fuel convoys. From a military perspective, that is what's known as a strategic vulnerability.
SECRETARY RAY MABUS: We looked at vulnerabilities for the Navy and the Marine Corps, and one of the ones that rose right to the top was our dependence on fossil fuels.
STANDEN: Ray Mabus is Secretary of the U.S. Navy. He says fossil fuels can also require doing business with countries that are in turmoil, and instability is expensive.
MABUS: Every time the price of oil goes up a dollar a barrel, it costs the Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs.
STANDEN: According to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust, the military has tripled its investment in technologies like biofuels, solar panels and electric vehicles over the last four years. Today, the Defense Department spends $1.2 billion a year on alternative energy. And that is great news for people like Bob MacDonald in Mountain View, California.
BOB MACDONALD: Let's go out and take a look at the system.
STANDEN: MacDonald is the chief technology officer of Skyline Solar, which makes solar arrays. It's relatively low-tech stuff. The components are off-the-shelf, easy to assemble.
MACDONALD: And when it gets into place...
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MACDONALD: ...it just snaps down.
STANDEN: A few years ago, MacDonald saw that the military was looking for clean-tech companies like his to partner with. He flew to Washington to present Skyline's product. It was kind of a new crowd for him.
MACDONALD: Wow, there's a lot of brass, you know, literally a lot of stripes and shoulder adornments and things around the table.
STANDEN: Colonels, corporals, sergeants.
MACDONALD: I just kept it pretty simple. Sir, yes sir.
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STANDEN: MacDonald left with a one-and-a-half million dollar contract to try out his panels on two U.S. military bases, one in Texas, one in Southern California. Now he's eying remote bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. These two worlds - alternative energy and the military - may seem like cultural opposites. But there's a lot they have in common, says Jon Gensler. He's a veteran of the war in Iraq who now works for Borrego Solar, based in San Diego.
JON GENSLER: There's so much that you don't know when you're starting a business, and there's so much that you don't know when you're out on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's the ability to operate comfortably with the unknown.
STANDEN: The hope of many clean-tech entrepreneurs is that the cachet - not to mention the enormous buying power of the military - can transform their companies, attract more investors, add jobs, change them from scrappy start-ups into real players.
JONATHAN WOLFSON: I mean, eight years ago we were five people with a completely delusional dream.
STANDEN: Jonathan Wolfson is CEO of Solazyme, which sells algae-based fuel to the U.S. Navy.
WOLFSON: And so you go from that to having an entity like the military, which is very, very disciplined and demands tremendous discipline out of its suppliers, it does really good things to help a company like Solazyme.
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The Obama Administration has systematically waged a war on carbon-based energy in pursuit of new green energy.
STANDEN: That's Republican Congressman Darrell Issa from Southern California at a hearing earlier this month focused on the bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra. The company had received - and lost - half a billion dollars in federal loans. Issa and other Republicans have argued that clean tech is just too risky for government investment. That's despite a law Congress passed in 2007 encouraging clean energy, which puts Navy Secretary Mabus in the curious position of being one of clean technology's last defenders in Washington.
MABUS: To lower carbon emissions, to lower greenhouse gas, that's a good thing to have happen.
STANDEN: But those environmental benefits, he says, are secondary.
MABUS: We're doing this to become a better military, to make us better war fighters. We're doing this as a matter of security.
STANDEN: Mabus says his goal is that by the year 2020, the Navy and Marine Corps will get at least half their fuel from alternative sources. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco.