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The Military’s Clean Energy Imperative

The Military’s Clean Energy Imperative

When does inaction on power reform go too far? When it risks our nation’s economic health? When it leads our planet towards environmental catastrophe? Surely we must draw a line when it puts American soldiers directly in harms way. A current New York Times article suggests that the military has seen sufficient, and in the absence of Congressional action, is taking the lead on creating clean energy technologies.


This new role for the military should come as no surprise. The Department of Defense will be the largest single consumer of power within the United States. In 2007, it consumed 1,100 trillion BTU’s-more than the entire country of Nigeria and at a higher per-capita rate than all but three countries in the world. The DoD further estimates that for every $10 improve in the per barrel price of oil, it costs the militairy $1.3 billion. At the exact same time, energy is the key enabler of US military combat power. American military force is tethered to increasingly vulnerable fuel supplies: “In Iraq and Afghanistan, one Army study found, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed.”

Although a lot ink has been spilled on the strategic disadvantage of America’s reliance on fossil fuels, and that we fund numerous adversarial nations, until recently the tactical dangers have not gotten their due attention. Fossil fuels aren’t just forcing our military into geo-strategic wars, but also putting our soldiers at risk within the field of combat:

“Concerns about the military’s dependence on fossil fuels in far-flung battlefields began in 2006 in Iraq, where Richard Zilmer, then a main general and the top American commander in western Iraq, sent an urgent cable to Washington suggesting that renewable technology could prevent loss of life.”

So although Congress is arguing over an RES bill which will do little to bring clear energy technologies to market and tax credits - which although meager, are necessary for fostering innovation - the army will be aggressively pursuing renewable technologies. This ambitious stance on energy stems from the 2007 Defense Reauthorization Act, which set a goal to produce or procure renewable power equivalent to 25% of the department’s total power use by 2025. The resulting efforts have shown substantial decreases in price as well as vulnerabilities.

If the army throws its full weight behind creating clear energy technologies the potential advantages to our armed forces and our nation as a whole are massive, suggests a current report by CNA. Throughout U.S. history, and particularly after WWII, the military has driven technological innovation via its unmatched efforts and abilities in R&D and directed procurement. When a technology has been essential for national security, the DoD has spared no expense in acquiring it. The technologies that have followed from defense priorities, moreover, have regularly spilled over into the civilian market, creating entire industrial sectors-aerospace, micro-computing, mass communications-that have powered the American economy for decades. At many of the most vulnerable junctures in U.S. economic history, defense priorities aligned with the needs of the domestic civilian market and allowed the DoD to catalyze rapid technological change that enhanced U.S. security and economic health.

The massive amount of consumption on the part of the military doesn’t just mean there are a lot of cuts to be made, but that there is a huge market that could pull renewable technologies to market. It is largely because of the DoD that personal computers can be purchased for under a thousand dollars rather than upwards of ten thousand. Between 1955 and 1958 the federal government, led by the DoD, purchased between 36 and 39 percent of semiconductors produced within the U.S. and that figure shot up to between 45 and 48 percent in 1959-1960. A robust and stable market for semiconductor technologies, provided by the military and NASA’s ‘Buy American’ policies, allowed producers to scale productions and thus drive down costs. In the same way, the army today could drive down the cost curve on solar panels, bio-fuels, batteries, small modular nuclear reactors, and a number of other clear power technologies.

So at this crucial moment, although America continues to fall behind in the global clean power race and although Congress continues to sit on the sidelines, it may have to be the army that leads the way. This will mean both increased investments in deployment and procurement as well as early and applied R&D. The American military will have to leverage its incomparable assets to do what it has done many times before, simultaneously pushing and pulling cutting edge technologies to market. We must fully realize that our energy policy is our national security policy and our ‘military industrial complex’ could be our ‘green industrial complex