Why the Military Hates Fossil Fuels
A strange thing has happened in the politicization of climate change: Oil has become something conservatives must love, while things like energy efficiency and renewable energy have become stand-ins for liberal politics, government intervention, taxes, take your pick. So it is that people are always surprised to learn that one of the biggest proponents of green technology in the United States is that most conservative of organizations, the U.S. military. Reducing energy use, in particular this country’s dependence on fossil fuels, has become a priority amongst all branches of the military pretty much since we got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and given that the Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of energy in the country (spending about $4 billion per year on facility energy consumption), it has started with its own house.
Time and again top military leaders have spoken out against our dependence on oil as a matter of national security. The thing you need to remember about the military, though, is that it’s comprised more of doers than talkers. To wit, the Department of Defense has been making major investments of time and money in green technology of various kinds over the last several years, and has been executing plans to improve efficiency and reduce energy usage far faster than any of the countless state, local and federal programs we hear so much more about.
The work has begun, as any resource optimization plan should, with efficiency. In addition to the Air Force’s energy conservation program, the DoD is researching and testing several technologies through its Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) and Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP). Concurrently, the Army and Navy have both kicked off net zero programs, aimed at reducing not only energy use on bases, but also water use and waste. The Navy is aiming for 50 percent of its bases to have net zero energy consumption by 2020. Compared to any states renewable energy portfolio standard or energy efficiency program that is extremely aggressive, but the Navy is confident it will get it done.
The Army, meanwhile, kicked off a net-zero base competition in 2010, selecting winners for its net-zero base pilot program in spring 2011. The Army identified six net zero pilot installations in each of the energy, water, and waste categories and two integrated installations striving towards net zero on all fronts by 2020. In its Vision for Net Zero, the Army states:
Today the Army faces significant threats to our energy and water supply requirements both home and abroad. Addressing energy security and sustainability is operationally necessary, financially prudent, and essential to mission accomplishment. The goal is to manage our installations not only on a net zero energy basis, but net zero water and waste as well. We are creating a culture that recognizes the value of sustainability measured not just in terms of financial benefits, but benefits to maintaining mission capability, quality of life, relationships with local communities, and the preservation of options for the Army’s future
By all accounts, the competition was a huge success, with base commanders putting a lot of time and energy into their proposals, and now even those that were not selected are forging ahead with their plans.
From all accounts it was a fierce competition between bases, with a number of commanders getting really into it,” says Jon Gensler, a former Army officer, Iraq war vet, and now a project developer for Borrego Solar. “Some of them have cycled through bases in Germany, where this stuff is just a way of life, so they’ve seen the benefit and want to bring it back to the U.S.
Gensler cites Major General Dana Pittard, Commanding General of Fort Bliss, in west Texas, as an example of such a commander. Although the net zero program has set 2020 as the target date, Commanding General Pittard intends to get his base to net zero energy by 2015.
He has a commanding presence – he’s local, he grew up there, he knows his people,” Gensler says. “I think he’s gonna make it happen. That set of skills and capabilities is the kind of thing you find in the military: the ability to look at a situation and see where you want to get, look at the resources you’ve got, make a plan and execute to get there.
In order to get there, bases are looking at a wide range of technologies, starting with those that reduce their energy needs from the get-go.
One thing a lot of people don’t realize because of hype around solar is that roughly 70 to 80 percent of any net zero energy goal needs to come from efficiency, and then maybe 20 to 30 percent comes from renewables,” says Erich Klawuhn, vice president of products at Soladigm, a Silicon Valley-based company that manufactures Dynamic Glass, a window glass that electronically tints, both for automated control and occupant control. “Energy efficiency becomes a big play; that’s something DOD and some of the engineering firms designing these net-zero buildings are really starting to understand: Do everything you can with efficiency first, and then make up the difference with renewables.
The net zero programs are fairly thinly funded at the Pentagon level, but the individual bases have thrown their full support behind it, finding funding not only through various government programs but also from the private sector. It turns out most renewable energy developers and cleantech manufacturers would love to have a military base installation to showcase, and banks see the military as a great, low-risk investment.
There are a lot of moving pieces and a variety of agencies, companies, and funding sources involved, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing the military’s progress at all.
The DOD is kind of a great place for this groundswell of support around cleantech and renewables,” says Gensler. “In the rest of the country you have all these mandates, but there are so many hurdles, so many different contexts, and then federal or state policy changes and that slows down investment, which creates a lot of volatility. But the military? That is what we’re used to. You get into combat and nothing is ever what you expect.
**Note: This is part one of a three-part series on the military’s foray into green tech. Please come back for the next installment on Monday.