ARLINGTON, Va. – The Department of Defense is one of the largest single consumers of energy and relies heavily on fossil fuels to meet national security objectives. The way energy is generated, transmitted, stored, and used, energy today is both a paramount combat enabler, and a potentially crippling vulnerability. History leads us to conclude that future wars will likely be fuel-limited environments. Critical infrastructure such as refineries, storage tanks, and distribution networks present lucrative targets to an adversary. Yet, the Air Force’s energy needs continue to grow. The reliance on fossil fuels lead to physical and geopolitical challenges in the security landscape, while alternative energy sources pose other challenges of their own. As the Air Force continues to reorient itself for great-power competition, the need to build more resilient energy infrastructure and supply chains has become increasingly urgent. The time has come to reimagine usage, generation, transportation, and storage of energy.
To address these challenges, the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, or AFWIC, [now AF Futures] Disruptive Technology Team, in partnership with AFWERX, launched the Reimagining Energy for the DoD Challenge Sept. 2, 2020. The Energy Challenge, an open crowdsourcing initiative, sought solutions to innovatively shape the future of resilient energy production, transmission, use and storage, thereby reducing demand and reliance on fossil fuels, while modernizing the energy infrastructure.
Solutions ranged from those that could be implemented immediately, some that required further development, while others were ‘moonshot’ ideas that may or may not be implemented until 2045. “The disruption of the energy sector is already happening. There’s unbelievable innovation occurring in how we produce, transmit and store energy,” said Col. Charles Bris-Bois, Air Force Disruptive Technology Team. “The DoD must partner with those leading this disruption in both industry and academia, to ensure we maintain our competitive advantage.”
The opportunity to partner with other Air Force organizations in the energy space grew with the inclusion of the Air Force Research Laboratory Transformational Capabilities Office, AFRL Advanced Power Technology Office and SAF/IE (Installations, Environment, & Energy). This proved to be an excellent partnership addition, consisting of the primary Air Force organizations that are focused on reshaping and identifying energy technologies for the future.
The Energy Challenge’s open call for topics garnered 903 submissions of which 179 finalists were invited to present their ideas to expert reviewers from across the government—the largest AFWERX challenge to date. The culminating event was a virtual showcase held Feb. 9, 2021. The event was introduced by Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration and Requirements Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, who highlighted the importance of the Energy Challenge, noting “ ... we need a mind-shift of the way we are thinking about alternative forms of energy” and that “ ... energy is a limiting factor to our operations and the options we can [effectively] provide to our leadership.”
The showcase included 1,895 participants from industry, government, academia and advocacy groups, and a program that included six keynote speakers, 10 technical panels, and multiple networking sessions. The breadth and depth of the proposed solutions provided by industry covered a wide range of topics to include: fixed and mobile energy generation and storage, energy transmission and distribution, new warfighting and operational equipment, data availability for improved planning and decision making, and energy culture, policy and education.
The AFRL TCO saw a unique opportunity in the Energy Challenge and is in the process of awarding several contracts in the areas of wireless power distribution, flexible power generation, renewable power generation, battery solutions, and innovative electrical equipment. This is part of a $6 million campaign that Chris Ristich, TCO director, says, “ …will connect emerging energy technology to the challenges of expeditionary air operations, and inspire new approaches to power the Air Force.” Additionally, the Energy Challenge facilitated the connection of many of the participating companies with other potential funding organizations and venture capitalists.
In addition to the Energy Challenge, the AFWERX prime initiatives has now established an Energy Prime campaign, modeled on the Agility Prime electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing, or eVTOL, effort, will leverage the research and interest community built by the Energy Challenge to select a specific concept or technology to drive to commercialization, in partnership with private capital and industry. Concepts currently under consideration are highly efficient airframes and propulsion to reduce overall aviation fuel burn, as well as concepts for drop-in replacement liquid fuels that can be produced at forward operating bases for both jet fuel and installations. Though still in the conceptual phase, Energy Prime holds the promise to accelerate critical, dual-use technologies to commercialization within an approximately 36-month timeframe.
The two initiatives, Reimagining Energy Challenge and Energy Prime, align with President Joe Biden’s Climate Plan to “ … make a historic investment in clean energy and innovation” and “accelerate the deployment of clean technology throughout our economy ... by reducing the carbon footprint.” The timing of these efforts proved insightful, providing an incredible opportunity for the DoD to partner with forward-thinking industries and academia to identify, fund and launch new, out-of-the box energy strategies and opportunities.
The Department of the Air Force is committed to accelerating clean energy opportunities, while addressing national security concerns stemming from requirements for energy dense fuels. The ideas generated, and solutions examined as a result of both the Energy Challenge and Energy Prime campaigns, are critical components to those efforts as the department plans for the future, with an eye on reducing its carbon footprint, while maintaining a competitive advantage.
The Department of the Air Force is further committed to expanding its partnerships with the commercial industry, research communities, and government entities to invest in innovative solutions that will shape the future of resilient energy production, transmission, use and storage. These efforts reduce the demand and reliance on fossil fuels, while modernizing the energy infrastructure.
AFRL TCO will announce, and release a follow-on article in the coming weeks highlighting their selected solutions from the Energy Challenge, and expand on how each of these solutions will help transform DoD, and specifically the Air Force’s energy dependence and reliability. It is through these ongoing collaborative events we are forging strategic partnerships that will have impacts reaching far and wide, and continue to break department and industry barriers. The future is bright, and we are excited to remain a leader in pushing DoD’s energy initiatives.