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U.S. Military to Insure success of Solar

The military getting behind Solar is actually a huge deal. The military was the major early funding source for computers, the internet, and the interstate highway system. The reason Silicon Valley exists was the U.S. military wasted a few trillion on computers over the course of several decades.

“The complex histories of computer science and computer engineering were shaped, in the first decades of digital computing, almost entirely by military funding. Most of the basic component technologies for digital computing were developed through the course of the long-running Whirlwind-SAGE program to develop an automated radar shield. Virtually unlimited funds enabled two decades of research that only began producing useful technologies by the end of the 50s; even the final version of the SAGE command and control system had only marginal military utility. More so than with previously-established disciplines receiving military funding, the culture of computer science was permeated with a Cold War military perspective. “

Wasting money on good ideas can sometimes end up with remarkable and world changing consequences. Hats off to the government waste of the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, which allowed the computer and internet revolutions to happen.

From the article: 

“The US Defence Department is racing ahead. This could be like the semiconductor industry in 1980s where the military changed the game,” said Jeremy Leggett, chairman of Solarcentury.

Nor is the Pentagon alone. Grant lists from the “SunShot Initiative” of the US Energy Department show that America’s top research institutes are grappling with each of the key issues that have bedevilled solar energy for so long.

Los Alamos – home of the Manhattan Project – is working on smart grids and better ways to capture excess electricity produced in peak sunlight hours. The Argonne labs are working on thermal energy storage to overcome “intermittency”, the curse of solar and wind.

One thing 99.9% of people do not understand about Solar is that it does not need to be the cheapest form of energy to be widely adopted. It just needs to be cheaper than the most expensive forms of energy.

The military says it can cost up to $400 per gallon for gasoline in a forward deployment. $400 per gallon! That’s 112 times more expensive than getting at the corner gas station. Solar can easily compete with $400 per gallon gasoline.




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  • Philip Diehl

    Good point. Solar could compete today if the massive subsidies coal, oil and nuclear receive from the Feds were eliminated or were matched with subsidies to solar of a similar magnitude.

  • Erik V

    This article made me think of a way to potentially get a meaningful increase in govt R&D spending. Get a non-Tea Party GOP president who will authorize a big increase in R&D spending under the guise that “it’s for the military”. That way you could pull one over on the nuttier elements of the GOP while it still being something enough Dems would support to get it passed.

  • beowulf

    “This article made me think of a way to potentially get a meaningful increase in govt R&D spending. Get a non-Tea Party GOP president who will authorize a big increase in R&D spending under the guise that “it’s for the military”.”

    Of course, when President Eisenhower wanted to boost spending on higher education and infrastructure, he signed into law bills that sounded vaguely warmongerish (the National Defense Education Act and the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, respectively).

    Someone (sorry I can’t remember the writer offhand) had the bright idea of expanding DARPA so it could fund govt R&D in areas outside of defense sector, basically as an agent for every other cabinet department. It was surely a mistake for Obama to put ARPA-E in the Dept of Energy and the “Education Research Initiative” in the Dept of Education. Congress has no problem cutting funds to civilian departments like Energy and Education just for kicks, but only a maniac tries to cut defense spending.

  • Tom Hickey

    Military Keynesianism shows its bright side. :)

    Virtually all the big innovation recently comes through government either directly or funding in that business is unwilling or unable to take on the risk.

    Probably several reasons that government will spearhead alternative energy in the US. First, the military has identified global warming as the chief threat to national security at present. Secondly, other governments, notably China, are heavily subsidizing solar and other alternative energy projects, and actually have plans in place for switching off carbon.

  • Tom Hickey

    And not only alternative energy. The CIA is funding a lot of private R&D, too. Gives new meaning to public-private partnerships.

    As part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s growing trend of partnering with the private sector,the CIA announced Wednesday that it would be investing in Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup that uses computers to make sense of data and present it in prose. Once a leader of technology innovation, the CIA recognized it could not compete for IT innovation and talent with private profit-driven firms. In one of the more impressive government adjustment to economic pressures, the CIA has changed the way the government creates IT innovation. 
    Beginning in the 1990s, the intelligence community started a fund to invest alongside private venture capitalists in innovative startups. In-Q-tel (IQT), the company that invests on behalf of the CIA, has served as a venture firm investing on behalf of the U.S. intelligence community since its creation in 1999. It is currently invested in just about 100 companies developing new information, communication, physical, and biological technologies.

    Narrative Science: The CIA is Investing in Artificial Intelligence That Actually Works

  • DismalEconomist

    Glad to hear some serious R&D for solar will get support.

    Is there an investment thesis here? Would we expect this move from the defense sector to show up on the revenue side of the solar sector’s income statement or show up as a cash infusion to these players’ balance sheets, expanding their equity base? The first instance would suggests we’re at a good time to enter. But if solar is going to start selling equity to capitalize their business to support government investment that might be negative for the shares right now. I’ve been looking to invest in the solar space for a while now but the valuations are kind of out there so I’m still on the sidelines.

  • brookside

    The Whirlwind/Sage connection to “silicon valley” is pure fiction. The whirlwind computers were developed by MIT and based on electronic vacuum tubes. Vacuum tube computers died out in the mid-1960 and led nowhere.

    The integrated circuit (the computer chip) was independently invented by Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby in 1958, The ic was an extension or further development of the transistor which was invented at AT&T Bell Labs in 1948 and developed into a fully functional device by 1954. Noyce had worked under William Shockley (co-inventor of the transistor) for several years just before he invented the ic. Kibly worked for Texas Instruments which had been an early manufacturer of transistors and other silicon based electronic components. Kibly and other TI engineers had regularly attended workshops and open presentations on the ongoing research in semi-conductor materials put on by the Bell Labs Materials Research Division so they could keep current on developments in this field.

    Kilby spent his entire career at TI but Noyce went on the co-found Intel.

    It looks like the road to Silicon Valley ran from Bell Labs thru Beckman Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Intel, and host of other companies but completely by-passed the Whirlwind/Sage/DOD connection. In the 1980’s the game changers in the semiconductor industry were Apple, IBM, a couple of hundred PC-clone manufactures, AT&T, Motorola, National Semiconductor, hundreds of TV and radio set manufacturers, and numerous of electronic component manufacturers. The DOD was just another buyer in the semiconductor market but not a game changer or market mover.

    I hope this guy Leggett knows more about the solar industry than he does about the semiconductor industry.

    As an aside, in 1934 the FCC agreed to allow AT&T to include the operating cost of Bell Labs in rate base which was used to calculate long distant telephone charges. In return AT&T agreed to freely license patients granted to Bell Labs. When you look at the stuff that came out of Bell Labs (transistor , laser, UNIX, C++, etc., etc.) this had to be the greatest bargain in history. Maybe the DOD model is not so hot.

  • stone

    Is it true that what was done in Bell labs was full on “blue sky” curiosity driven research?
    My impression is that individual curiosity rather than top down direction is the way to get great innovation. The way to transition that into useful applications is to have commercial use and it is great to have a to-and-fro between pure science and commercial applications. Apparently Einstein was inspired by the patents for electromagnetic devices he saw in the patent office where he worked. Kary Mullis says the polymerase chain reaction was inspired by the desire to sell more oligos. In the 1800s, the theory of heat engines was playing catch up with practical advances in steam engine technology. etc etc.

    I think Jean-Pierre Garnier’s ideas about this are worth a look:
    “The basic philosophy for modern R&D should be to morph big into small in recognition of the fact that critical mass in fundamental research is the size of one human brain.”
    I guess at GSK he had a lot of painful exposure to how hard it is to get large projects to produce innovations.

    I’m in no doubt that an open military budget check book is a big spur to innovation but I do really doubt that a military program of top down directed research will be on track – or even waste money in an informative way.

  • stone

    I guess the DARPA Grand Challenge is a great example of how things can work:

  • beowulf

    “The DOD was just another buyer in the semiconductor market but not a game changer or market mover.”‘

    Ha, look up on the internet (hey, who invented that?) all of the names you mentioned and see if you notice a common career detour between the years 1941 and 1945. Also, anything that’s reported to have been invented in the late 1940s may actually have hijacked from the Germans by, err, “just another buyer in the semiconductor market” and leaked to American researchers.

  • brookside

    The book “Where Wizards Stay Up Late” by Hafner and Lyon is a history of the internet. In about 1968 ARPA contracted with the firm Bolt Beranek and Newman to design and construct a “packet switching” network which became known as ARPANET. The network went operational in late 1969 or early 1970 with connections between about a half a dozen ARPA funded research sites. During the 1970’s ARPANET expanded to cover about 100 sites but it was always a closed network and restricted to ARPA designated and funded research centers. Also, because of the limitations of the power of computers of the day the ARPANET protocols and operating instructions were hardwired into special Honeywell minicomputers.

    Between 1979 and 1980 Vint Cerf of ARPA and researchers at Xerox PARC transferred and rewrote the ARPANET machine code to a portable software package which is now known as TCP/IP. ARPA released the TCP/IP program under an open source license so anyone could use it. In 1986 the National Science Foundation received Congressional funding to construct a high speed network backbone connecting the six designated national supercomputing centers using the TCP/IP networking program. The centers would be the site where other networks or subnetworks could connection the high speed network backbone. Originally it was called NSFNET but we now call it the internet. The Congressional legislation providing the original funding was sponsored by Senator Al Gore.

  • Granny Ermengarde Tenderstone

    PLEASE wake up everybody. You have to understand, this is not an EITHER/OR issue, neither are most other issues in life. THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES TO ALMOST EVERYTHING, nothing is always black or white. PLEASE CONSIDER signing my petition and sharing it widely — both in the industry and outside of it. JUST TO BE FAIR AND HONEST!


    Love the Middle East? Hate America? Then keep pushing oil. LOVE AMERICA? SIGN THIS PETITION NOW AND CIRCULATE WIDELY. and NO you won’t lose your jobs, I HAVE A PLAN to CREATE BETTER JOBS where aircraft/military/oil industry jobs USED TO BE, and which will replace all the dirty jobs with PROFITABLE, CLEAN JOBS. Now if you can’t relate to that, you need psychiatric care badly.

  • Granny Ermengarde Tenderstone

    and BY THE WAY, tell your editor that ENSURE, not INSURE, appears to be the correct word that should have been used in the headline. Yes I’m a grammar nazi.

  • beowulf

    Cullen hires the interns and they write all the headlines.