Military and Energy: The Solar Entrepreneur

This
week Marketplace airs a special series on the U.S. military and energy, and the
quest
to "unleash us from the tether of fuel."

One of our segments featured U.S. Marines guinea-pigging solar technology in Afghanistan. One of the gizmos: a hybrid generator from the company ZeroBase that makes electricity from fuel, wind, solar, you name it.

Zach Lyman is founder and chief technology officer of the family-owned company, which started out making boats in Maine. After last fall's successful Marine Corps test of his generator, DC-based Lyman's now fielding orders from the Army, too.

From my interview with Lyman:

As a new-energy entrepreneur, what's the challenge dealing with the military? We don't necessarily think of them as tech early adopters.  (listen to extended audio clip)

"For the military, I am a computer company coming in in the 50s, 60s, maybe early 70s saying 'I
have the next great thing, but it costs you a little bit more.' And the procurement person looks at me and says, 'I just bought 600,000 reams
of paper. And that's how we do things, we do things with paper. Why would I spend more to do something digitally?' And the computer industry said, 'Where are the niches
that computers can solve the problem that paper can't do?' And that was their point of entry in supporting these organizations." And we obviously can see what happened with computers..."

"I use that example a lot. One of the biggest challenges we face is proving that what we say we can do we can. Validating the technologies. For the military, nothing is better for us than proving out our technology for the military."

How valuable is the military's seal of approval for clean-tech entrepreneurs? (listen to extended audio clip)

"If we can successfully implement with someone like the Marines, all of a sudden that's just a feather in our cap to talk about how reliable the product is. The validation process is really to the advantage of my industry personally, I think. And to the Marines as well, so it's a mutually beneficial process."

Feather in your cap helps how? When you talk to finance people? Bankers?

"In almost every setting it gives us bragging rights. So, people that are skeptical in the commercial world about relying on it for telecommunications. People who have seen solar for 35 years and are, like, 'yeah, that's kind of a niche technology.' Its not a niche technology any more. Look at the Marines start to use it."

Surely you've heard the joke: that solar is always five years away. (listen to an extended audio clip)

"The misnomer of solar always being five years away, it's here and
ready. It's just a question of how you use it. It's not for every application. But on facilities that have large roofs, this is  a fuel-free solution to offsetting some of your consumption for the military. So you are seeing a lot of adoption of facilities-based large-scale solar installation. It provides them power surety, power independence. In some cases
in the near future they'll be net producers to the community that surrounds them. That has been going on for 30 years. It is mature as an industry. The cost
per watt is here and ready."

"The cost of energy produced in the U.S. is coming up.
And solar is coming down. And you are seeing that gray area between the two
really even out in a lot of ways."  

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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