A New Military Mission: Clean Energy

The solar panel below powers a series of spotlights that highlight the New Mexico National Guard sign outside the Guard’s compound in Rio Rancho, NM. The Guard is making clean energy the focus of a mission for all its units statewide. This article is reprinted from the Center for American Progress’s “It’s Easy Being Green” series.

In 2007, NPR reported that the U.S. military consumed and purchased 340,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the single-largest purchaser of oil in the world. If the Department of Defense were a country, they said, it would rank about 38th in the world for oil consumption, behind the Philippines. But because of DOD’s size and vast energy expenditures, even small efforts to reduce energy use amount to big savings and improved security, and turning to alternative fuel sources can help significantly reduce the military’s energy footprint. Over the last decade, all branches of the armed forces have committed to significant energy-saving initiatives and increased their use of alternative energy and fuels:

American military outposts around the world have adopted traditional and innovative energy-saving measures. Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, NV is powered by a 14.2 megawatt solar photovoltaic array system that saves an estimated $1 million in energy costs annually. And at American military headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, since May 2008 the Army has used two generators fueled with food waste, shredded documents, and ammunition wrappers not only to produce power but also to dramatically reduce the volume of garbage trucked out of the area. These efforts save fuel, but they also reduce risk for the personnel driving the fuel-carrying convoys because the trucks are targets for attack by insurgents. The National Guard reduced its Santa Fe, New Mexico compound’s electric bill from $53,988 in October 2007 to $41,944 in October 2008 by using a combination of wind turbine energy generation, conservation practices, and alternative fuels for a 15-vehicle fleet.

And here’s another little-known fact: For decades, the Department of the Navy (which includes the Marines) has been investing in alternative fuels. Among its longest-lived projects is the 270-megawatt geothermal power plant at Coso Hot Springs, China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California. In the first six years of the plant’s operation, beginning in 1987, the Navy had saved approximately $24.2 million on electric-energy costs.

The impetus to commit to alternative energy, reduce consumption, and invest in innovative energy sources is not just a matter of cost and sustainability for the military–dependence on imported oil is a security issue as well. In an October 2008 press release on its official homepage, the Army announced that it had established a Senior Energy Council that would, according to Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, “bring energy savings and security to the Army.” Geren went on to say that the council would “provide a consistent and steady focus on energy that will provide the oversight required as well as the effective management of energy programs to deliver the greatest return to the Army.”

At the same time, the Army announced numerous pilot programs such as a 500-megawatt solar thermal plant at Fort Irwin, CA in the Mojave Desert, to “provide renewable power on the grid … and added energy security against disruption of power supply.” The army is also working with the private sector and the Navy to develop a major geothermal project at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada that will have the capacity to produce 30 megawatts.

The military’s eco efforts also got a boost recently: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 signed into law by President Barack Obama last month included $3.6 billion for Department of Defense energy efficiency projects and facility modernization.

This is welcome news for the military as well as the rest of us. As TreeHugger points out, actions the military takes in fuel and efficiency can benefit the civilian sector. For example, if the Army develops better fuel cells for soldiers on extended patrols there’s a good chance these will be adapted for civilian usage. And if the Navy puts solar panels on base housing and the Army builds a massive solar plant, it demonstrates these technologies are viable for use elsewhere.

With recent news from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that global warming is happening faster than expected, the military’s energy efficiency efforts are more important than ever. Under the guidelines of the recovery act, the military can take even more strides to reduce its emissions and energy use, and its successes have the potential to translate into benefits for everyone.

Read more articles from the “It’s Easy Being Green” series.

3 Responses to A New Military Mission: Clean Energy

  1. charlie says:

    Military research is the biggest chunk of R&D in this country. In fact, you could argue that military manufacturing is the only real manufacturing we have left.

    Given that, there are tremendous opportunities for research. Biofuels. Solar. Smart grid. Nuclear.

    (take hawaii — you could probably power the entire island from the nuclear power plants that are sitting in pearl harbor).

    That being said, there are real limits to how fuel efficient tanks, jet airplanes and navy ships can be. In a comment by nuclear, you see the Navy moving away from nuclear from nuclear except for carriers and subs — even they can’t deal with the costs.

    Three is a debate to move NNSA to DOD rather than energy. Not sure how I feel about it. The original politics of giving civilian control to nuclear weapon manufacturing seem less important.

    The other thing I’ve proposed is that DOD set up a giant jet fuel hedge and let commercial carriers buy in as well. Would help stabilize some pricing and save the airlines a lot of cash. Also you could gradually start to tax the airlines over a period of 15 years to get them as fuel efficient as possible.

  2. DB says:

    Charlie wrote: “In fact, you could argue that military manufacturing is the only real manufacturing we have left.”

    US manufacturing last year totaled $5.2 trillion.

    This, of course, is many times greater than the entire military budget.

  3. ScubaGypsy says:

    The Navy has been using solar thermal for heating hot water since the 1970/80’s at its gyms on a number of bases. They also have one of the most comprehensive recycling programs in the country as they include batteries as well as paper, plastics, glass, aluminum and steel. Current handling of haz mats for R&D and manufacturing form the model for safety and responsibility across all sectors of business.