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Written by Natalya Stanko   
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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Military Energy

Renewable Energy and the U.S. Military... We rightfully associate war with environmental destruction—the spraying of Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam, the burning of oil wells in Iraq1, the development of the gas-guzzling Humvee2—and we rarely applaud the military for its contributions to environmental technologies. When destruction drives good innovation, does it warrant a protest or a clap? That's a tough one. The military represents the duality of human character, something that's hard for us to wrap our heads around. The story of technology is the story of war. The military invented jet engines, robotics, even the Internet.3 Now, perhaps unexpectedly, the military is driving the development of renewable energy technologies.

The military's commitment to renewable energy first garnered attention in 2006, the year that President Bush said in his State-of-the-Union address, “America is addicted to oil.”4 That year, Major General Richard Zilmer, the top U.S. military commander in western Iraq, urged the Pentagon to send more solar and wind power systems to Iraq to produce power for bases and outposts.5 In 2007, Congress challenged the U.S. military—which accounts for 80% of the government's energy consumption—to draw 25% of its energy from renewable resources by 2025.6 Then in 2009, President Obama mandated that all Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, use 30% less petroleum in its vehicle fleets by 2020.7 In the spring of 2010, the Navy adopted a set of even more ambitious goals, including creating a “Green Strike Group” of nuclear vessels and ships powered by biofuels by 2012 and then by 2015 cutting petroleum use in half for its fleet of 50,000 commercial vehicles by phasing in flex-fuel, hybrid, and electric vehicles.8 That's a lot of numbers. Simply put, the military – the single largest consumer of energy in the United States9 – is cutting its emissions by a lot, and soon!

The military's green efforts are based on practicality, not on environmental values. Kevin Geiss, the army's program director for energy security, said in 2010, “The Army's mission is not to be green. Our mission is to defend the nation. In that context, we've found it's in our interest to develop sustainable projects.”10 Going green makes monetary sense. A gallon of gas can cost the military up to $400 if you include the price of delivery to the battlefield,11 and here we thought $4 a gallon was steep! In 2008 alone, the military spent about $18 billion on fuel.12

Moreover, transporting fossil fuels costs human lives in combat. According to one study, one soldier is killed for every 24 fuel convoys, and 6,000 such convoys are required annually in Iraq and Afghanistan. That adds up to a staggering 250 preventable deaths per year, all linked to fossil fuel consumption.13 The good news is that the military has made many green promises, and even more surprisingly, has already made great strides towards meeting its goals. Let’s look at the government’s use of solar power , alternative fuels , and then some new and creative energy sources it is harnessing!

Solar Power
With 70,000 solar panels on 140 acres, the Nellis Solar Power Plant in Nevada has been generating clean energy since 2007. When it's completed, the plant will produce 25% of the power used at the Nellis Air Force Base and by its base population of more than 12,000 people.14

Nellis Solar Power Plant
Nellis Solar Power Plant 15

The Army is also developing a $2 billion dollar solar power plant in the Mojave Desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas that will power Fort Irwin and over 100,000 civilian homes.16 Internationally, the U.S. military is going solar as well. American soldiers in Afghanistan's Helmand province are taking warm showers thanks to solar water heating.17

Additionally, the military is investing in a new solar technology that is solar-powered hydrogen production, which will produce hydrogen for vehicles. Hydrogen has the potential to store energy (generated from solar or wind) just like a battery. It's cheaper than using batteries, but unfortunately much less efficient than batteries as well.18

Biomass Power
In the past year, the Air Force flew an F/A Super Hornet fighter jet and an F-15 Eagle fighter on biofuel. To keep on flying (and driving) green, the military is building some of the biggest biomass plants in the U.S., one in Florida and the other in Georgia.19 The military isn't just using plants and animal fats for its biofuels. Just last fall the Navy unveiled the Riverine Command Boat, which runs on 50% diesel fuel and 50% algae-based fuel .20 Go algae!

Riverine Command Boat
Riverine Command Boat21

Trash, Ocean, and Sugar Power?
Yup, that's the plan... Fort Benning in Georgia will convert its landfill gas into electricity. The military will use the temperature difference between warm surface water and cold, deep ocean waters to generate energy. And soldiers will soon carry biological batteries, which power up with sucrose.22 Who knows, maybe we'll soon be juicing up our gadgets with sugar too!

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 15 September 2011 )