Imagine an organization so determined to deploy alternative energies that it sends representatives to the four corners of the world to observe new technologies, invests considerable funds of its own in alt-energy research and development (R&D) and encourages private industry to build new technologies for it. Imagine that this organization is even willing to go so far as to send personnel to the Nevada desert location of alternative arts festival Burning Man – an annual celebration of radical ideas and self-expression – to visit what’s called “The Playagon,” an experimental camp of green-minded people who display and test alternative energy solutions. One would have to admire that organization’s drive to wean itself off fossil fuels.
The organization in question is the U.S. Marine Corps, which has been engaging in a monumental alternative energy push as of late. The Marines are well suited for testing new energy and military technologies. With only 200,000 active-duty personnel, it’s the smallest branch of the U.S. armed forces. The Corps operates on a budget of about $30 billion — a “shoestring” by U.D. Department of Defense (DOD) standards and only around 4 percent of U.S. military spending. It’s also the branch generally sent in first to establish footholds in hostile territory, which means it has a tradition of being a highly self-reliant organization, often describing itself as “Spartan.”
Given the Marine Corps’ usual missions, energy independence isn’t only about saving cash and the planet. Colonel Bob Charette, director of the Marines’ two-year-old Expeditionary Energy Office, says it’s about saving lives and becoming as self-reliant as possible.
“Our ethos demands that we increase the efficiency of our gear and the use of renewable energy, so we maintain that leadership as modern-day Spartans,” Charette sai.
When your mandates are self-reliance, security and cost-savings, it’s hardly surprising that it makes sense to implement a policy of small-scale, distributed renewable energy. According to the New York Times, 10 years of operations in remote parts of the world where fuel is scarce and hard to bring in, military commanders are starting to view heavy dependence on fossil fuel as a huge liability. As renewable energy technologies become more plentiful, less expensive and easier to deploy, it’s no surprise that military leaders are making big plans to quickly expand their use.
The military is well placed to become the nation’s leader in alternative energy. Unlike in federal programs, where energy policy must be debated by a gridlocked and highly partisan Congress, military leaders have the power to create and mandate alternative energy policies with little interference. Ironically, today the U.S. DOD is probably the world’s largest consumer of both of oil – the U.S. military uses more than 90 percent of the energy consumed by the federal government – and renewable energy. As a result, the military is in a unique position to observe and understand the benefits of alternative over traditional energies.
The U.S. Marine Corps isn’t alone in its quest for alternative energy technologies. Right now, every branch of the armed forces is working to cut its consumption of fossil fuels, both to reduce costs and to make itself more efficient in the field. However, the Marines’ role as the military’s ship-to-shore expeditionary force means that it needs to be more portable, more self-reliant and deploy much faster than other branches of the military, and it must do so frequently in remote and hostile environments.
Simple practicality led to the Marines’ quest for alternative energy. When the second Iraq war began in 2003, General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, found that operations’ needs were constantly several steps beyond energy supplies on the ground, and that maintenance of fuel supplies took up most of the division’s time: about 70 percent of U.S. convoys operating in the most dangerous areas were maintaining a supply line for fuel and water, a process also called “liquid logistics.” This prompted Mattis to write a report to the DOD calling for technology and processes that would “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”
The story has been the same during operations in Afghanistan, where fuel reaches the front lines via a long and dangerous supply chain of tankers, planes and helicopters. The reality of this complicated and problematic supply chain is that by the time a gallon of fuel makes its way from its source to the front lines, it may be costing the U.S. military as much as $400 a gallon.
Then there are the human costs. The Army Environmental Policy Institute estimates that there is one casualty every 24 fuel convoys. A similar study by the Marine Corps Combat Development Command determined that for every 50 convoys in Afghanistan, one Marine is either killed or wounded. In the past 10 years, over a thousand U.S. military service members have been killed in fuel convoy attacks.
To address this, the Marine Corps held its first-ever energy summit in June 2009. At the event, Commandant James Conway said that finding alternative energy solutions for Marine operations would become a top priority. The restructuring plan created at the summit, called “Bases to Battlefield,” set an ambitious goal of reducing the average soldier’s use of fuel on the battlefield 25 percent by 2015 and 50 percent by 2025.
One of the most important elements of the plan has been the development of what’s known as an ExFOB, or “Experimental Forward Operating Base,” a base containing a collection of alt-energy technologies that can be deployed quickly and operate largely independent of fossil fuels.
One of the first groups to use the ExFOB in Afghanistan was the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines (3/5). The 3/5 used a number of technologies, including Ground Renewable Energy Networks (GREENS), Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy Systems (SPACES), Solar Shades (large solar collection tarps that fit over a standard Marine field tent), Solar Light Trailers and LED lighting systems. SPACES, a lightweight solar panel system, collects solar energy to recharge batteries, allowing the 3/5 to conduct long patrols away from their base without the need for battery resupply and power two patrol bases entirely with renewable energy. At larger sites, the amount of fuel normally used to power generators was cut from 25 gallons a day to two to three at the most. GREENS, a 300-watt, photovoltaic/battery system, provides continuous power to Marines in the field. All in all, the program resulted in a 90 percent reduction in typical fuel use.
The new solutions are replacing diesel and kerosene-based fuels that would ordinarily generate power to run bases. The solar drive has another important security advantage: by collecting and storing solar energy during the day, the encampments can use the energy at night without the need of noisy generators that can be heard miles away and give away the presence of troops on the ground to insurgents hunting for targets.
Another group, the Marines of Company I, experimented with the ExFOB technologies, including the SPACES system, in the Sangin valley in Afghanistan, powering their patrol bases with nothing but renewable energy.
“India Company (Company I) went into the most dangerous region of Helmand Province, they battled a determined foe, and the entire time they were deploying and using small-scale renewable systems,” said Colonel Charette. “They are reducing their dependence on fossil fuel, and they are reducing their dependence on batteries.”
Company I later reported that it was able to conduct a three-week foot patrol “without battery resupply, reducing [overall] load on Marines [in the unit] by 700 pounds.”
The 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, also deployed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, field-tested other ExFOB technologies, including hybrid (solar with diesel backup) generators and solar water purification and refrigeration technologies.
The results of ExFOB field testing were so impressive that the technologies are being widely distributed throughout the Marines’ operations. By the first half of this year, the Marine Corps says it expects to deploy ExFOB among all infantry units in Afghanistan. Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos has stressed the need for all Marines to get behind the new strategy.
“You don’t have to think too hard, much past the last 30 days, to see what’s happening around the world,” Amos said. “With all the issues, a lot of it in the oil-producing part of the world, we need to begin to wean ourselves off of fossil-based fuel. Not only that, we need to be able to lighten our load. This is about us. This is about what’s best for the Marine Corps.”
Of course, the Marines aren’t the only branch of the military finding tactical advantage and cost savings in alternative energies. The Navy, together with the Department of Energy and the Agriculture Department, are planning to spend $510 million to advance commercial developments in alternative fuels. The goal, says the Navy, is to obtain 8 million barrels of biofuel by 2016 to fuel a new strike group nicknamed the “Great Green Fleet.” The Navy has already demonstrated that alternative fuels – including biofuel made from algae – can work in many of its planes and ships without modification of the engines. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says that if the Navy doesn’t find alternative fuels, it may not be able to afford to build news ships, or it might not be able to afford to fuel the ships and aircraft it currently has. The spike in the price of oil as of late is exceeding current military budgets and is expected to raise Navy and Marines expenditures by more than $1 billion, according to Mabus.
In addition, the Navy recently announced that it plans to ramp up its use of public-private partnerships to purchase one gigawatt of renewable energy by 2020 (one gigawatt is enough energy to power a mid-sized city). The purchasing program is expected to help the Navy meet its goal of attaining half of its fuel from renewable sources by 2020.
Mabus also stresses that it’s about security as well as cost savings. “Fossil fuel is the number one thing we import to Afghanistan,” Mabus told the New York Times. “And guarding that fuel is keeping the troops from doing what they were sent there to do, to fight or engage local people.”
Even the Air Force, the most energy-hungry branch of the U.S. military, has taken big steps. The Air Force, which flies some 900 routine flights every day around the globe, is responsible for running energy-intensive installations all over the world. Despite this (or maybe because of it), it has taken steps to trim its energy consumption. Since 2006, the Air Force cut its consumption of jet fuel by two percent even while it increased the amount of cargo it carried. On its bases, the Air Force has reduced the amount of electricity it consumes by 15 percent, compared with 2003 figures. The Los Angeles Air Force Base recently partnered with the State of California to convert its entire fleet of general-purpose vehicles to all-electric cars and trucks. The Air Force’s savings has come not only from using alternative energies – all in all, the Air Force procured 6 percent of its energy from renewable sources last year – but simple energy-minded policy changes like making sure there is less wasted space on cargo flights and re-working flight paths to save fuel.
Sounds great, right? It always does, until politics enters the picture. The Marines’ positive experiences with alternative energy and the Air Force and Navy’s progress may not be enough to get around political prejudice and dogmatic back-home red-tape thinking that dictates that alternative energy is for patchouli-wearing hippies who need to get a job.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in August 2011 (subscription required), Robert James, a retired rear admiral and former branch chief of the CIA, labeled alternative energy experiments by the military a symptom of “fads and political correctness,” accusing some branches of the military of trying to “stay abreast of the latest style” and wasting time with “green paraphernalia.” (Let’s also add that James was once reportedly a vice president of Mobil and an economist for Conoco.)
“What better way to give away your position than by erecting a three-story windmill?” wondered James, apparently poorly informed about precisely what technologies the Marines are using in Afghanistan.
Not to be outdone, the think tank Rand Corporation last year told the office of the Secretary of Defense that alternative fuels offer the military “no direct military benefit” and that “the military is best served by efforts directed at using energy more efficiently in weapons systems and at military installations.”
Perhaps it’s time for both James and the Rand Corporation to visit Helmand Province. It’s certain that the Marines living and working there would welcome their “wisdom.”
On a somewhat positive note, recognition of the politics blocking the U.S. military’s push into alternative energy has been duly noted by some in Congress. Last year, eight Republicans and 15 Democrats banded together to form the Defense Energy Security Caucus, which claims among its goals educating Congress on military energy issues, including “the strategic value of utilizing sustainable energy.”
While “educating Congress” seems like a worthy goal, one wonders if the Caucus wouldn’t have more success herding cats (who know the value of a good sunny spot, after all). Good luck to them.