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Experts Only Podcast #90: How is the Department of Defense is Approaching Clean Energy with Michael Wu

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Transcript

Jon Powers:

Michael, it’s great to finally have you at Experts Only.

Michael Wu:

Yeah. Thanks, John. I felt a lot better when I listened to your podcast with your co-founder Tom. And he similarly said that it was difficult to get on the podcast. So I feel a lot better about it.

Jon Powers:

He was hosting at one point. So he has, we don’t have a excuse there. Mike, you and I have been friends for a long time and we have very similar career paths. And I really want to dive into the exciting things that are continuing to happen in the defense energy space. But before that, talk a little about you sort of what got you interested in this, and really, how did you sort of start to build out a career in this space? And, as we were talking offline, as you were finishing grad school… Or law school, right? First of all, why did you, why did you want to become a lawyer?

Michael Wu:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I… My dad’s a lawyer and he had a job that he loved that made people’s lives better. And so growing up, I had this example of somebody who works in child advocacy, child welfare, foster care reform, and things like that, but who had those aspects of a life that I really wanted. And I saw a legal career as a pathway to achieve that.

Jon Powers:

And then through your law school work, you ended up working for the Office of Secretary Defense OSD, which for folks that don’t know, the Pentagon is really one of the most senior tiers of the Pentagon and their General Counsel Office first, how did that happen?

Michael Wu:

Yeah, I sort of lucked into it. So I went to Wash U University in St. Louis for law school, and they had a program that allowed you to go to D.C. for a semester. And that allowed me to work in the Pentagon for the first time, I had been really focused on being a National Security Law Professional, working in, issues of national security, issues of international law, and particularly how the military operates in the bounds of the laws of armed conflict and thought that was going to be my career. So I was really focused on, working on specifically detention of terrorism suspects. How do we look at the ways in which –

Jon Powers:

That’s an easy topic.

Michael Wu:

Yeah, such an easy topic. No, no real ethical or operational concerns there, but yeah. How are we prosecuting, this war with non-state terrorist organizations, but also doing so in ways that reflect our values. That reflect, what we are trying to achieve in strategic objectives.

Jon Powers:

And this is post still Guantanamo Bay was obviously highly in discussion.

Michael Wu:

Yeah. Standing up the military commissions for, how we were going to work with, and prosecute cases against terrorists in Guantanamo. But how… how do we ensure that we’re meeting the legal requirements of Habeas Corpus and things like that. It’s fascinating topic endlessly interesting, but that’s when a little organization that you helped start, a little campaign that you helped start really diverted me from that path.

Jon Powers:

We took you away from detaining terrorists and got you interested in clean energy. You came to work at Operation Free for folks that don’t know, Operation Free was a campaign we started around the climate… the climate talks of 2009, 2010, to get national security veterans and national security experts involved in the debate and an active role in playing, and Mike ran it for a while. First of all, what did you learn from that experience?

Michael Wu:

Yeah, I mean coming to Operation Free, I knew that I wanted to work in national security. I knew that climate and energy were really going to be key issues going forward. And… But I didn’t really have any background in energy policy. I’ve worked on The Hill previously and I’d worked in the Pentagon previously. And so that was sort of what I pointed to as experience that would make me a good fit and then immediately fell for it immediately fell for the idea for both the energy national security nexus, but even more particularly for the military, clean energy, national security nexus, the idea that we could be pursuing clean energy solutions and not only would those be good from an environmental and sustainability standpoint, but that they would be good for our national security.

Jon Powers:

If you’re listening and you are a veteran, Mike and I are actually part of a restart of this campaign it’s called the Veterans Energy Project. You can go to veteransenergyproject.org and sign up to be part of the conference of the national conversation. Not just about DOD, but in climate energy overall. Like me, I’ve went from Operation Free into the Pentagon. Instead of going to the Army, you went to the Air Force. At the time, the Air Force didn’t really have a Special Advisor on Energy and you help sort of really ramp that up. What did you learn? You know, first of all, what experience did you bring, having been in OSD that helped you shape that role? And then for folks that don’t understand what… just paint a picture of what Air Force energy looks like.

Michael Wu:

Yeah, absolutely. Number one from Operation Free, what I took was these incredible… Not just policy and understanding of the overall issues, but these incredible stories of veterans. Like you, like many others, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives and whose missions were profoundly affected by the military use of energy. The U.S. Military is the largest consumer of energy in the world. They have a massive energy budget, at the time, between 16 and $20 billion a year, now closer to between 12 and $15 billion a year to –

Jon Powers:

By the way that’s larger than some of the departments, that cabinets –

Michael Wu:

Exactly.

Jon Powers:

– In terms of their own budgets.

Michael Wu:

That’s right. And you can see why, I mean, it’s the world’s bureaucracy. The things that the military can accomplish are absolutely breathtaking, from not just military operations and, kinetic combat operation standpoint, but from a logistical standpoint. We can move anything in the world anywhere in 48 hours. And that’s… And when you think about the size and scale of some of these operations, that’s it… that’s incredible, but that comes with a huge energy tail that comes with logistics concerns and those logistics concerns as you well know, were huge tactical vulnerabilities on the battlefield during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When some assumptions about our ability to provide fuel, to provide supplies, to more remote operating environments in particular where in a conflict where there weren’t traditional battlefield lines, there weren’t traditional battlefields. And you’re in a counter-insurgency, that’s a totally different conflict than what our force structure was really prepared for. Seeing that and understanding ways in which renewable energy and clean energy could be a part of helping protect our forces and helping strengthen the resilience of our forces, was really what drew me in to the campaign and to this career. And so I have… I have you to thank for it. I always say I’m following the Jon Power’s career path. I also joined the Army shortly after that.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. So you’re hanging out with the Air Force folks, and decided to become an Army JAG… JAG Officer. How has that experience been, especially hanging your hat on sort of both sides of the Pentagon?

Michael Wu:

Yeah, the JAG Corps and being an army officer has been –

Jon Powers:

Quickly for people that don’t know explain the JAG Corp.

Michael Wu:

Yeah. So every… the JAG Corps is the Judge Advocate General Corps. Every military service has a JAG Corps. They actually predate… The Army JAG Corps predates the founding of the Republic.

Jon Powers:

Wow.

Michael Wu:

It’s… and they are the lawyers. They are the lawyers that help ensure the military operations comport with the laws of armed conflict. They are the lawyers who help… do prosecute and defend cases in the military justice system. In the Army, they’re the lawyers that help ensure that contracts are legally sufficient. And they’ve had a huge role in actual the ways in which combat operations are really conducted in, especially in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and current day conflicts. You know, when you have people who are deciding whether a strike is legally sufficient from thousands of miles away… You have a different command structure and a different, and a different legal structure to really think about providing that kind of input to commanders who are making those life and death decisions on the battlefield.

Jon Powers:

That’s interesting. I’m going to run it before we come back to talk about what you do today. What’s interesting to maybe make that point. It’s not just the legal structure, actually, the energy structure of that is it’s so transformational to where we were when, you think about sending a division into Northern Africa to invade Europe and World War II, right? Or sending them to Korea. Now you’ve got folks flying drones out of places like Nevada, and those operations not just rely on the power to man the operations, but the communications, the cyber protection of that. There’s so much that is sort of a domestic power pool, which is a very different power structure than we had literally energy structure that we had sort of in any previous wars. And, it’s really has caused a transformational rethink of the Defense Department’s energy posture. You were at the ground floor of a lot of that, and continue to work on that, and for… Talk for a second when you finished at the Air Force, you founded Converge Strategies, talk about why you saw an opportunity there and sort of what the role of Converge is in that conversation.

Michael Wu:

Yeah. Working in the Air Force, we had sort of front seat picture at exactly what you’re describing. All of a sudden, and not all of a sudden, but in the last two to three decades, as we’ve become a globally networked force, across continents, through those communications structures and networks that you just described, John. We you know… We have changed the nature of the battlefield. And now all of a sudden, as you described, we’re supporting active combat operations and conducting active combat operations, active intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance operations from domestic installations here at home, at places like you just described in Nevada. And so that changes the nature of the requirement where, electricity and natural gas and the things that power our bases here at home are actually requirements that need to be considered by… that need to be maintained in order to maintain those capabilities that are providing support to troops overseas.

Michael Wu:

It’s traditionally installations, spaces, infrastructure issues were an issue of readiness. They were an issue of ensuring that our forces were ready to deploy when they were called upon. And you send a division or a brigade combat team overseas in the time that it’s needed today, that that need is instantaneous, that there is a need for uninterrupted access to electricity for core national defense missions here at home. And that’s been a shift over the last couple of decades and really over the last, five to 10 years that’s accelerated. And so that’s why we formed Converge Strategies. I formed Converge Strategies with a good friend Wilson Rickerson, who is a clean energy expert of some renowned in his own right, but really around continuing that mission that we were working on at the Air Force. At the intersection of clean energy, resilience, and national security.

Michael Wu:

And so in the last four years, since we founded Converge, we’ve really focused on three key areas. Number one is we work directly with the Department of Defense to strengthen their energy resilience initiatives. And we’ve done that in a few ways, which I’m happy to get into more. Number two, we’ve worked with cities, states and private sector partners that want to work with the Department of Defense on energy resilience projects. And that’s really important because DOD, isn’t going to be able to do this on its own. Given the number of concerns and threats that are, that are present to the civilian infrastructure. And we saw an example of that in Texas. And I know you have my colleague, John Monken on a few weeks ago, specifically to that where 80% of DOD installations in Texas and Oklahoma experienced moderate to severe disruptions in mission, that were related to the power outages of the commercial infrastructure.

Michael Wu:

Working with those cities and states and private sector companies that want to help the Department of Defense strengthen the resilience of the infrastructure that feeds those bases is absolutely critical. And then finally, we want to work with the same city, states and private sector partners who have critical energy requirements of their own, because everything that I just described about DOD about a globally networked force, about the need for uninterrupted access to electricity is as true, if not more true for the operation of civilian government or civilian or –

Jon Powers:

Amazon, Walmart or yeah.

Michael Wu:

Exactly. We have really become our… Our entire society has become incredibly dependent on electricity, and we still view it as a commodity rather than as a lifeline infrastructure sector, which, we really hope to help move that ball forward into the view of this is absolutely essential and critical, and people need to value it like that.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. So I’m going to paint a picture just for the audience and also this conversation isn’t going to… I’ll sort of talk about where isn’t it going to go and then where it’s going to go. Because I think about what’s most interesting to folks listening to this. When a little history on DOD energy for a long time, it was always this, we never discussed, it was logistics problem. They paid the bill, fuel costs went up, bill went up. But in… during the fighting… Iraq in 2003, General Mattis, a very famous general in charge of a Marine Expeditionary Force sent back a letter arguing that his folks in a specific region of Iraq were going in and literally dying trying to deliver diesel fuel to power generators in a place with a significant amount of sun and asking really why don’t we have things like solar power generators here, operationally. That kick-started a cultural phenomenon within the Pentagon to really look at what’s known as Operational Energy.

Jon Powers:

So Operational Energy. We’ll talk about the domestic side of it here soon, but you know, most people’s heads is those fuel convoys in places like in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we had over 3000 us military deaths associated with fuel convoys, interact. Like that’s an unbelievable amount of unnecessary deaths providing fuel to that battlefield, knowing there’s a better way. That in its own right, is a really interesting conversation and talks about things like solar powered backpacks for soldiers in the field and small micro grids for operating bases. But what I want to focus on, on this mic is the domestic side of it, because I feel like that’s a better picture of lessons that could be learned both from DOD and to others. And back in terms of sort of the work you guys are doing.

Jon Powers:

Going back to that example of Texas, when the Texas blackouts happened, or the rolling backs out of California, just a year ago, that isn’t just affecting the folks living on a base and readiness or training. It’s literally affecting true live operations that are going overseas. So first of all, in your experience, how much of the military leadership has recognized that? How much of that cultural change has started to permeate back here to realize as a top level priority? And then, a little bit of, what… Where does that need to go to really get the leadership continued to be committed to these issues?

Michael Wu:

Yeah, I think we, in the time where, you and I were serving in the Obama Administration, it was certainly a point of emphasis. I had a tremendous former boss who I think has appeared on the podcast, Miranda Ballentine, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force at the time. And she’s a transformational leader who really cares about her people. And she came in without having any military experience whatsoever, but having phenomenal experience as the Director of Global Renewable Energy for Walmart. The… Maybe one of a few handful of corporations that have a similar type footprint to DOD. And so, her… what she quickly realized was this energy resilience issue is a huge problem for Air Force Operations. And so, when you have 170 installations in the Air Force alone, more than 500 DOD installations worldwide.

Michael Wu:

And so many of those installations are providing necessary and critical core defense capabilities. And so many of them are vulnerable to disruption on the civilian grid, that caught a lot of attention. And so, we did a few things within the Air Force. We founded the Air Force Office of Energy Assurance, a centralized program office in line with what you helped found the, in the Army, the Office of Energy Initiatives now to help develop and implement large scale projects for bases to be able to maintain critical operations when their power was disrupted. And I think what we’ve seen now is with, with the incoming leadership of this administration is just a tremendous refocusing and redoubling of efforts around ensuring that investments that are tied to… We shouldn’t see these things as mutually exclusive, rather they’re mutually reinforcing. We can reduce our carbon footprint, which again is breathtakingly large, just within the military. We can strengthen the resilience of the infrastructure on our bases, and we can strengthen military capabilities by making investments in clean energy, renewable energy, energy storage, in order to ensure that our operators have what they need when they need it.

Jon Powers:

First of all, glad you brought up Miranda. Because I feel like that’s… People assess the scale for a second. I’ll just put my old army hat on the Army’s got three times the square footage of Walmart. So you think about just the scale of that management is a beast. And what really came out of the previous administration. It didn’t disappear in Trump Administration. It just sort of moved really into the back, into the shadows a little bit to continue to operate. And it’s accelerating again here in the Biden Administration is you created these centralized offices that provided expertise to get the sense. So for instance, I always use a Niagara Falls Air Force Base, because it was in my backyard here in Buffalo as an example. But if you were the Energy Manager at that base, you most likely never have done a long-term energy contract for renewables, and you may only ever do one.

Jon Powers:

You’ve never done a micro grid or storage facility. You may never do one. If you’re a facilities manager for a Fortune 100, same exact challenge. The advantage those guys usually have an energy office to turned to and the headquarters worked through. So what was created, are these sort of centralized hubs to help folks get through that. The opportunity there is for developers or others can go to those places, engage with somewhat energy experts to help move their projects forward and find opportunities. I think it’s really important to think about how those offices get re-elevated, maybe even restaffed and re- into supply. But we’re where do you see those shops looking like four years from now with the emphasis of what we’re getting out of this administration?

Michael Wu:

Yeah. So a couple more stats that reflect the size and scale of the challenge and the opportunity. So if you add up the land that DOD controls, it’s roughly equivalent to the size of the state of Pennsylvania. It’s an incredible amount of territory and land that DOD controls, that’s a lot of trading ranges. That’s a lot of land that could be used for energy projects and something to keep in mind. To your point about leadership mattering, what we’ve seen is unprecedented statements immediately at the start of this administration, by the highest levels of national security leadership. Secretary of Defense Austin, on, I think his seventh day on the job issued a pretty incredible statement around how central climate change is going to be to the ability of the Department of Defense and the United States to, for our strategic interests and objectives. You know, he labeled it an existential threat to the United States. And I think that’s certainly reflected in reality. We also saw the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, issue a similar statement about the importance of addressing and understanding the implications of climate change and really confronting climate change.

Jon Powers:

Right.

Michael Wu:

For our core national security interests, much less, the continued existence of our civilization. And so, those are, that is… So one, the challenges in front of us are immense.

Jon Powers:

Just a point about why that matters. If you are working in the bureaucracy and depending on those types of statements, help align the priorities of what is getting done. So if your leadership doesn’t care about these issues, for instance, look at the last four years, your issues fall to the back burner. But if the Secretary of Energy or Secretary of Defense is interested in asking questions about it. In a massive bureaucracy, like the Pentagon, those issues bubble up quickly, and you just have a bigger voice at the table.

Michael Wu:

Yeah. And, and we have, some pretty important folks who are going into the administration.

Jon Powers:

For Sure.

Michael Wu:

Or are in the administration in senior levels who are really focused on this issue and understand its importance and priority. You know, getting back to your question about the program offices themselves. What I see is a real convergence of the… of the issues of climate resilience and clean energy, where all of that land, all of those installations are already suffering from the effects of climate change in Texas, in California, in Hampton Roads, in San Diego, everywhere. You know, we’re seeing the effects of climate change, disrupting the ability of our military installations and operations to advance. And what I see in the… In the program offices is, those kinds of concerns along with the concerns we have over overall electric grid resilience, not just to natural events and, increasingly severe and frequent weather events, but, attacks on the civilian grid from other countries, physical and cyber attacks that are currently risks for the electric grid and there have been risks for decades, that people are very attuned to now. Making just a case for large scale transformational investments, both in the electric grid itself to strengthen the infrastructure that feeds our bases and powers our core national interests in national security and national defense missions, but also on the installations themselves.

Michael Wu:

So that ideally soon in the future, all of our critical missions are powered in such ways that are resilient to both cyber attack, physical attack and commercial disruption. And also able to operate because they’re tied to sources that can’t be disrupted the way fuel supply lines can. To be able to operate for extended periods of time without resupply. And so, that’s the, I think that’s the vision for the future. It obviously implicates, it’s going to require transformational investment. It implicates the emergence and implementation of new technologies and commercially available technologies on a greater scale than we have today.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. Let’s talk about the technology part. And then I want to talk about the consortium you guys have started. Cause I think one of the challenges in the energy and climate space for the Defense Department is their traditional approach is no one else does what we do. Whether it be, making Humvees for the battlefield or, aircraft for the military, it’s just a different business model. But for energy, a lot of the technologies that we’re using for the Apple Campus in California, or for the grid efforts in places like Virginia can easily transform a military base. And there’s always a challenge for if I’m a mid-level entrepreneur with a really cool technology or even a large development shop wanting to take advantage of an opportunity to bring renewables to the military. Even figure out where to enter that conversation and knowing that it’s going to take much longer than any other customer that I’m selling to one. You guys have created a really interesting consortium to bring together some of their leading experts in the energy security space, it’s known as RISE. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with RISE and the role it’s going to play in sort of creating that dialogue?

Michael Wu:

Yeah, absolutely, John. I think you’re exactly right. And you’re exactly right to identify sort of the different nature of a lot of national defense missions and, and needs and why climate and energy action are actually present a really amazing opportunity for innovation. And so, if you look at creating weapons systems and aircraft combat aircraft and things like that, that is narrowly defined as defense oriented equipment overall. But there’s an incredibly robust, existing energy and climate innovation ecosystem with some of the brightest minds, great capital investment, incredible new technologies coming out every day, moving at an incredible pace today. And many of them don’t want to work with the Federal Government because they can’t wait, because it takes too long for them to be able to access Federal Government customers. All of the avenues open to transformational investment in the military today, I think are too slow to meet the size and scale and speed needed to really confront climate change in our energy resilience challenges.

Michael Wu:

And so that’s why we created the Resilient Infrastructure and Secure Energy Consortium for a couple of reasons so that we wanted to organize and structure, that energy and climate innovation ecosystem in a way that the Department of Defense can access. So that senior DOD leadership and people who are program managers within the department can describe to this consortium, the challenges and problems that they’re facing from an energy and climate standpoint. And that industry can provide with a unified voice what the current state of technologies are, what kinds of solutions are available. And were doing it in this consortium structure so that you can collaborate directly more effectively. We’ve done it in a way that takes advantage of what’s called other transactions authority. So that, which basically we has been in place since the fifties, since the space race, where it’s exempt from some of the requirements for federal contracting that really shut down innovation or slow down innovation to the point that companies aren’t interested.

Michael Wu:

And this is actually a tremendous accelerant of innovation and collaboration. So you can do things like engage directly with DOD officials and help structure, the solicitations that DOD is asking for in ways that, you can fulfill it in ways that push the envelope really effectively. You can listen to DOD and engage directly with DOD officials in ways that will help you structure your technology investments. In ways that are meeting the department’s critical requirements. And our hypothesis, which I think is pretty thought out, is that the same things that DOD needs today are going to be needed across the board from an energy storage, from a renewable generation, from a micro grid and nano grid standpoint from a cyber security for industrial control systems standpoint. And so not only is DOD investing in its own capabilities, but we’re also going to help, really accelerate the proliferation of energy technologies and climate technologies, across the nation.

Jon Powers:

Interesting. So if you were a growing company or a organization that wants to get involved in this, how would you do so?

Michael Wu:

Absolutely. It’s very easy. It’s free. You can go to –

Jon Powers:

Free. Free, did you hear that?

Michael Wu:

Yeah. Rise-consortium.org, and you can join today and we certainly encourage you to do so. We are having a kickoff event on June 15th. That’s going to feature some senior level DOD officials. Actually, I think this is the first time we’re announcing it. So congratulations on the scoop, John, and so it’s going to have DOD officials. It’s going to have representatives from technology companies, and it’s going to involve a lot of interaction and collaboration, and that’s just the start. We’re going to be having events throughout the country over the next year, and hopefully over the next decade, that’s really going to help accelerate this transformation and transition

Jon Powers:

Outstanding. Now, Mike, I’m going to ask you a question. If you can go back to yourself coming out of law school and before you joined Operation Free and could sit down and have a beer with yourself, what piece of advice would you give?

Michael Wu:

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I know what the question that you asked for –

Jon Powers:

I know you do.

Michael Wu:

– all your guests.

Jon Powers:

Yes. You’re going to have an Old Fashioned with yourself.

Michael Wu:

That’s yeah. Let’s –

Jon Powers:

Mike makes phenomenal cocktails.

Michael Wu:

So I think it’s really stick with it and really focus on what you want to do every day.

Jon Powers:

Yeah.

Michael Wu:

Because my first job out of law school was actually working on detention issues for us, a small nonprofit and who were trying to write basically the 9/11 commission report equivalent, but on detention issues.

Jon Powers:

Oh, wow.

Michael Wu:

And which was fascinating. And obviously the subject that I thought I was really going to work on, but I was stuck in a cubicle. I was reading books and writing memos and not seeing people for days at a time. And what I realized was, that wasn’t going to be my path that I wanted to be in the middle of trying to make policy, trying to implement policy, trying to create sort of new, new capabilities that are in service of that ultimate goal, which is, U.S. National Security, global security, global peace and prosperity.

Michael Wu:

And so that’s how I ended up at Operation Free and the Truman Project originally, was I took a lot of meetings, got a chance to meet you got a chance to meet a few other folks. And again, didn’t have any background in energy and climate beyond being a concerned citizen, but it has laid the groundwork for the career that I’ve built so far. And just an incredible number of people that I’ve gotten to meet through this network who are both my closest friends, but also the people who I know are really aligned around the same kinds of visions and missions for the future. And it’s just been, I think so… I think it is, don’t get stuck on the subject that you think you want to work on, focus on what you want to do every day.

Jon Powers:

I love it. Well, thank you for what you do every day. It’s so important to all of our national security.

Michael Wu:

Well, thank you, John, for again, laying the roadmap for me.

Jon Powers:

Absolutely. Thanks for finally being on Experts Only. I’m glad I could book it.

Michael Wu:

Yeah. I’m in demand. So I understand that it’s not always easy, but…

Jon Powers:

You know, I want to thank the team at Converge for, as always, helping to put this together and being part of a really interesting conversation that I love and I’m passionate about and thanks to our producer, Colleen Young and Carly Battin for their work here. Clean Capital, you can always get more episodes at cleancapital.com. We’ll make sure we post the information around the RISE Consortium so you can access it before the events and be a part of the dialogue with DOD. Thanks so much for listening and I hope you enjoyed the conversation. Thanks, Mike.

Michael Wu:

Thanks my friend.