NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Flexible solar cells now power communications equipment used by U.S. Marines fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, enabling them to shed 315 kilograms worth of batteries while on foot patrol. But an F-16 fighter jet flying over Miramar training base in California burns 105 liters of jet fuel a minute with its afterburners engaged whereas the C-17 cargo consumes 11,350 liters an hour.

That heavy reliance on oil—much of it imported—presents a real challenge to the U.S. military. As Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., put it in an address to the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-e) conference here on March 2: "We are reliant on our adversaries for our national security."

That's why the U.S. Defense (DoD) and Energy (DoE) departments are partnering on initiatives to further develop and test energy-storage technologies first developed by ARPA-e. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced two such development and deployment partnerships on March 2 for power electronics modules and batteries capable of storing megawatts of power—both to be funded by a requested $25 million each from DoD and ARPA–e in the fiscal year 2012 budget. 

"Twenty-five million dollars is the cost of one H-1 helicopter," Mabus said. "The change that $25 million from DoD and ARPA–e can generate, can multiply that one helicopter hundreds and thousands of times."

Mabus was referring to saving both lives—for every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq, one soldier or Marine is killed or wounded, according to a U.S. Army study—and money. The DoD fuel bill came to some $14 billion in 2010. "For every dollar the price of a barrel of oil goes up, the Navy spends $31 million more for fuel," Mabus noted. "Our dependence on fossil fuels creates strategic, operational and tactical vulnerabilities for our forces."

The Navy has taken a lead in attempting to change that, setting a goal of deriving half its energy needs from non–fossil fuel sources by 2020 as well as making half of its bases energy self-sufficient. Already, the Navy has ordered some 150,000 liters of jet fuel derived from Camelina—an oil-seed plant like canola—and more than 75,000 liters of diesel like fuel for ships from algae, an order the U.S. Air Force has matched by requisitioning 150,000 liters of bio–jet fuel. "The Navy has taken delivery of its first algae-based jet fuel. We're not talking about some environmental weirdos, we're talking about the Navy," former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) noted in an address to the ARPA–e conference on March 1. "Why should a dried up little country with a crazy dictator like Libya play havoc with America's energy future?"

And the Navy's first hybrid electric-drive ship—that uses electric motors for speeds under 12 knots—saved some $2 million in fuel costs on its maiden voyage from Pascagoula, Miss., to San Diego. "Changing the way we produce and use energy is fundamentally about improving the national security of this country," Mabus said, noting the Navy's history of fuel switches—from wind to coal in the 19th century and coal to oil supplemented by nuclear over the course of the 20th century. "I am confident—as we lead again in changing the way we power our ships and aircraft—that the naysayers who say, 'it's too expensive, the technology is not there,' are going to be proven wrong again."

That is exactly what ARPA–e—and more broadly the goals set by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu—could prove. "You cannot decouple energy and national security," says ARPA–e Director Arun Majumdar. Via the ADEPT (Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology) and GRIDS (Grid-scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage) programs, ARPA–e aims to prove the energy-storage technologies that the Navy and other armed forces need. "We want to develop storage and do that with batteries, flywheels at the cost of $100 per kilowatt-hour, [and] use it anywhere in the world."

And ARPA–e is exploring opening new research programs to turn scientific advances into deployable technologies in the areas of advanced biofuels, natural gas and thermoelectrics, among others. "We should fund ARPA–e at $1 billion per year," said Charles Holliday, former CEO of DuPont and member of the American Energy Innovation Council, which attempted to lay out a vision for the U.S. energy future in 2010.

But U.S. lawmakers currently won't commit that kind of money. In fact, the U.S. Congress is debating whether the ARPA–e program should continue to receive funding and, if so, how much—although Sens. Lamar Alexander (R–Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska) and Mark Udall (D–Colo.) all expressed support for the fledgling agency during addresses at the summit. "Many programs are never funded at their authorized level, let alone higher," Murkowski said. "Every program has to live within its means."

Proposals for ARPA-e in 2011 range from $50 million in a budget proposal from the House of Representatives to a $550 million request in President Obama's budget. "We will be working with Congress on the programs that are the most important for the future of the United States, and will put us in the best position for our economic prosperity," Secretary of Energy Steven Chu noted in a press conference here on March 1. "We have our own priorities, whether we get the president's budget or not."

And that means taking into account the human health impacts of fossil-fuel burning as well, argued Schwarzenegger, noting that 100,000 people die prematurely each year because of smog and other air pollution, which also sends 6.5 million people to the hospital with respiratory issues. "One in six children in central California walk around with an inhaler. That's what we do to those kids," he said. "The suffering and expense of petroleum deaths needs to be recognized."

In fact, regardless of funding, improving the security of U.S. energy supply—and thereby national, environmental and economic security—has become a priority for both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. "You have become the sharp end of the spear," Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman told the ARPA–e summit attendees. "It is the kind of innovation you are pursuing that will spell the difference between success and failure."