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Defence groups enter green zone

When a Scottish farmer applied for planning permission to build four wind turbines in a field this year, his plans were almost derailed by Aberdeen airport. The turbines were in line of sight of the airport's radar and could interfere with it, potentially hampering air traffic, the airport said.

The farmer turned to an unlikely source for help: Qinetiq, the defence and research technology group that developed radar in its formative years during the second world war.

Today, it has found a new use for its expertise, adapting its computer modelling techniques to help airports, developers and energy companies analyse the impact of a new wind farm on the performance of radars. The group is also developing the world's first "stealthy" composite wind turbine blade that will not interfere with radar systems.

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The farmer's approach to Qinetiq paid off. The company proved the turbines would have only a negligible impact on the radar and Aberdeen airport withdrew its objection.

It was a small victory but a significant example of how some of the world's leading defence companies are applying their military technologies to one of the fastest-growing markets: energy and renewable energy and climate change, in particular.

"Energy and environment is emerging as a key strategic focus for Qinetiq alongside security and defence," says Mark Roberts, energy and environment director at Qinetiq.

Many defence companies already use their engineering skills to provide energy-efficient solutions to the armed forces (the US army has launched an initiative to cut down on the logistical cost of transporting fuel across large battle areas), while their satellite technology has for decades been used by the military to provide weather forecasts.

Until now, though, there has been little evidence of a "holistic approach" to the energy sector, said Nick Cook, founder of Dynamixx, a consultancy focused on opportunities in the energy and environmental market for the aerospace and defence industry.

With government defence budgets under pressure, more industry executives are waking up to the fact that their skills, includingsystem integration expertise and the ability to model large amounts of data, can be used to help combat climate change, the ultimate system of systems.

"Action needs to be taken now and the defence industry is the best placed sector on the planet to deal with the threat," says Mr Cook.

Even Lockheed Martin is going green. The world's largest defence company, better known as the maker of fighter jets such as the F-16, is already one of the largest providers of energy efficient programmes for utilities and federal agencies in the US but is now using its engineering expertise - it employs about 70,000 engineers and scientists - to pursue other opportunities in the energy sector.

It has teamed up with Starwood Energy Group, an affiliate of private equity investment group Starwood Capital, to investigate commercial-scale concentrated solar energy generation facilities in North America.

Dr Ray Johnson, chief technical officer, believes the energy market is a "good fit" with defence. "Lockheed is a national security company and we see energy as a growing national security concern of the US and our allies," he says. Its scientists are doing cutting-edge research in areas such as renewable energy and alternative sources of power.

In January, Lockheed signed a licence agreement to integrate and market so-called Electrical Energy Storage Units from Texas-based EEStor for military and homeland security applications. EEStor is developing a ceramic battery chemistry that can provide 10 times the energy density of lead acid batteries at one tenth the weight and volume.

This month Lockheed was granted $1.2m (£769m, €961m) by the Department of Energy to demonstrate that ocean thermal energy conversion is possible. Although oceans do not always feel warm, the difference in temperature between the surface and the cold depths below is great enough to be transformed into electrical energy.

Given the changes in weather that are taking place, in part due to climate change, predicting these changes accurately both for the military and business is another increasingly lucrative area.

Raytheon, for example, has for decades supplied weather-monitoring sensors on ground-based radars, on aircraft and even space craft.

The information it processes is invaluable not just for weather forecasters but also for the military, which can use it to help influence tactical decisions during a conflict. But other markets such as agriculture can increasingly profit from accurate information: farmers can use the data, for instance, to decide when to harvest.

"Detailed information on weather and climate trends can be critical to improve the effectiveness of alternative forms of energy such as wind and solar power," says Thomas Culligan, executive vice-president of business development at Raytheon.

Saab, the Swedish aerospace and defence group, also supplies weather stations to the country's transport authorities, helping them plan when to remove snow and ice from the roads.

At the end of last year the company took its first step into the waste management business, investing in a company called Usitall, which specialises in waste management and energy recovery. According to Ake Svensson, chief executive of Saab, the move will allow it to export this knowledge and offer it to customers as an "offset potential" against harmful carbon emissions.

"[Defence companies] can manage big programmes," he adds. "Some of these cases are huge integration tasks, we can also provide command and control systems that have been developed for military purposes."

As defence companies identify more opportunities in the sector, there are likely to be significant partnerships with energy companies; most already admit to holding early-stage talks. But they are unlikely to start selling wind turbines in your local supermarket. The consumer market is one area that will remain out of reach.

"It is difficult for us as the defence industry to approach the consumer market," says Mr Svensson. "We are good when you have bigger customers, like authorities or major industries that need your expertise."

Source: http://us.ft.com/ftgateway/superpage.ft?news_id=fto102920081416449049