In 2009, with mounting concerns over climate change and dependence on foreign oil, Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Ray Johnson decided that energy, and energy security should be a major focus of the defense company's activities. Three years later, Lockheed Martin is looking at new ways to create and store energy, protect the electrical grid from cyberattacks and even monitor climate change. Aviation Week Contributing Editor Sharon Weinberger recently spoke with Johnson about Lockheed's energy initiatives to learn why the largest defense contractor in history has taken this turn.

Defense Technology: Where do you see the business case for pursuing energy initiatives?

Johnson: Many of the government's facilities are old and a lot can be done in terms of the efficiency assessment and implementation. These investments pay back over a pretty short period of time. That's one area.

Another area that comes to mind is Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, or OTEC. (Lockheed is working on an offshore 5-10-megawatt OTEC pilot plant.) What we find is that OTEC works best in tropical climates where if you think about the hot equatorial band around the Earth, the temperature difference is great between the cool water closer to the bottom and warm water on top. Those places also happen to be where military facilities around islands are, like Hawaii, for example, and Guam. The only way they can get energy is to bring it there, so the energy cost for these islands and the bases associated with them is much higher than it would be on a mainland environment.

We also have this concept of the smart grids and multiple energy sources working together for military mobility customers. There may be a small group of 150 or 200 people. We actually have the ability to set up a microgrid utilizing various forms of energy coupled with a more standard generated energy to reduce the dependence on that generated energy, therefore reducing dependence on the fuel that fuels it and the sources that provide the fuel, and enabling them to get the job done in a more cost-effective way.

What do you think it will take to convince Congress that biofuels should move forward?

The criticisms have been that biofuels today are more expensive than the traditional fuels they would replace. Again, many technologies are this way. When technologies are new they tend to underperform [compared with] existing technologies. You have to look at the long-term payoff.

I think that's the way the U.S. Navy is looking at this. What's the long-term payoff of having a hybrid force rather than an all-petroleum force? It's mostly the cost argument that Congress has trouble with.

What do you think will get more emphasis in the coming years: energy efficiency or alternative energy?

Up until now I think the emphasis has been on energy efficiency. I don't have any strong data to support my comments, but at some point the easy things to do will have been done. In the energy efficiency playbook, the things that might be the next incremental efficiency gain will also be more expensive because you've done the easy things. As that begins to happen, then the focus and the shift will be more on what are the other things we can do which will bring alternative energy more into focus.

If the price of oil drops, do you think the emphasis on alternative energy will go away?

The thought is that the natural business rhythm around people's interest in alternative energy peaks when the price goes up. Unfortunately, it wanes when the price goes down. I guess it depends on the length of those dips and in the magnitude of the dip. I guess we feel that the pressure on resources of all kinds is likely to continue to increase with time. This nexus of energy, food and water and the connectivity there will continue to put a lot of pressure on energy.

Having said that, however, look at the seemingly unending sources of more traditional energy that people are finding, like shale gas, etc. It puts price pressure on the alternatives.

The crystal ball in this area is not very clear, but one of the issues may be [establishing the real cost of carbon emissions]. If in fact the research in climate change advances to the point where people can make more definitive statements about the anthropogenic causes, maybe that will become a driving factor for alternative sources before we run out of them or the price difference changes.

The true pricing of the carbon component of fossil fuels is not there today. Maybe if people begin to look at the true pricing, that will change the equation.

That's my read for the future. A penny saved is a penny earned, and I know efficiency work falls into that category.

Ray Johnson

Chief Technology Officer, Lockheed Martin

Education: B.S. in electrical engineering from Oklahoma State University. M.S. and Ph.D. from U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology.

Career: Before joining Lockheed Martin, served as COO for Modern Technology Solutions and Senior VP at SAIC, and held various research positions in USAF.