Why The Pentagon Should Worry About Lack Of Innovation In Electric Utility Sector
Electric utilities spend scandalously few dollars on research and development.
The electricity sector in the United States spends at most a few tenths of one percent of net sales revenue on R&D. To put this in perspective, the electronics and pharmaceutical sectors typically invest between 8% and 12% of net sales in R&D.
“In fact, investment rates for the electricity sector are the lowest of any major industrial sector, with the exception of the pulp and paper industry,” wrote Massoud Amin, a professor of engineering at the University of Minnesota, in 2008.
The lack of innovation in the electric utility sector has curtailed the commercialization of new defense-related energy technologies. In particular, the limitations of electric generating technologies has derailed deployment of “directed energy” technologies.
The Pentagon has prioritized deployment of directed energy technologies for fiscal reasons. Depending on the power source, laser weapons are dramatically cheaper than conventional weapons. Missiles and mortars are expensive. Depending on the power generating technology, power is cheap and abundant. Lasers also have speed-of-light reaction times and far greater precision than conventional weapons.
“Directed energy weapons could become hugely disruptive from a cost standpoint, because they could kill targets for a lot less than traditional missiles and guns,” wrote Ariel Robinson in National Defense Magazine. “Supporters believe they are among the innovative technologies that will allow the U.S. military to retain its advantage.”
The problem is less with the weapons themselves than it is with the lack of adequate power generating technologies to support them. There are no power generating technologies capable of supporting directed energy weapons in battlefield conditions.
“There are still issues with respect to getting the power, getting that much energy density on target,” David DeCroix, a congressional fellow on the House Committee on Homeland Security, told National Defense Magazine in 2015.
Military vehicles and vessels were not designed to accommodate the sprawling power generating systems needed to support directed energy weapons – at least using currently available technologies.
Most Navy ships have enough space available onboard to accommodate a high-powered solid-state laser with outputs powerful enough to destroy anti-ship cruise missiles, but not enough space to accommodate the ancillary power systems required to operate the laser, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The same is true for Army vehicles. Plenty of room for the laser itself but not enough space for the generators needed to operate it. Earlier this month, Lockheed Martin completed testing of a 60 kilowatt-class laser designed to be deployed on the largest vehicle in the Army’s inventory, according to Defense News.
Lockheed Martin is developing a nuclear fusion technology as part of its Skunk Works program that could be used to build reactors small enough to fit on the back of a truck.
Fusion is the holy grail of nuclear technology and Lockheed made a splash in the media when it claimed that it could construct a 100-megawatt reactor measuring seven feet by 10 feet, which is about 10 times smaller than current reactors within a decade.
U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers run on power generated by nuclear fission reactors. In the simplest terms, nuclear fission breaks a single atom into two whereas nuclear fusion combines two atoms into one. The energy released by fusion is three to four times greater than the energy released by fission.
The U.S. Navy is developing a mobile microgrid concept it calls the “energy magazine” to support directed energy weapons on electric ships. This new breed of mobile microgrid is a distributed system of power generating and energy storage assets designed to deliver massive pulses of electric power to electric weapons.
Think megajoules of electric power delivered on time scales ranging from milliseconds to nanoseconds. Delivering one megajoule of energy in 10 microseconds would require about 100 gigawatts of electric power, which is far more than even the largest power generating facility can provide. For instance, the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest power generating facility, has a generating capacity of about 22.5 gigawatts.
Needless to say, commercially available power generation technologies have a long way to go before they will be able to drive – instead of derail – deployment of directed energy technologies.