The Military’s Clean Energy Imperative

By Daniel Goldfarb and Adam Sieff

When does inaction on energy 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 recent New York Times article suggests that the military has seen enough, and in the absence of Congressional action, is taking the lead on developing clean energy technologies.

This new role for the military should come as no surprise. The Department of Defense is the largest single consumer of energy in 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 increase in the per barrel price of oil, it costs the militairy $1.3 billion.  At the 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.”

While much ink has been spilled on the strategic disadvantage of America’s reliance on fossil fuels, and that we fund a number of 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 in 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 major 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 while Congress is arguing over an RES bill that will do little to bring clean energy technologies to market and tax credits — which while meager, are necessary for fostering innovation — the military 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 energy equivalent to 25% of the department’s total energy use by 2025.   The resulting efforts have shown substantial decreases in cost as well as vulnerabilities.

If the military throws its full weight behind developing clean energy technologies the potential benefits to our armed forces and our nation as a whole are huge, suggests a recent report by CNA. Throughout U.S. history, and especially after WWII, the military has driven technological innovation through its unmatched efforts and abilities in R&D and directed procurement. When a technology has been necessary 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 whole 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 huge 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 in 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 military today could drive down the cost curve on solar panels, bio-fuels, batteries, small modular nuclear reactors, and a number of other clean energy technologies.

So at this crucial moment, while America continues to fall behind in the global clean energy race and while Congress continues to sit on the sidelines, it may have to be the military 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’.

5 Responses to “The Military’s Clean Energy Imperative”

  1. [...] Adam Sieff and I wrote last week, the military’s clean energy imperative is founded on the strategic and tactical risks fossil fuels pose to American soldiers.  While it [...]

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  3. [...] Reps. Giffords was in fact putting voice to is “The Military’s Clean Energy Imperative,” which is increasingly reaching a tipping point of consensus across Congress and the [...]

  4. [...] powerful motivating factors for the U.S. public and policymakers alike. The importance of clean energy technology for the Department of Defense, and for saving the lives of American troops, is creating a new clean-tech imperative. Rising oil [...]

  5. [...] predict the global clean-tech market could surpass $600 billion by 2020). The importance of clean energy technology for the Department of Defense, and for saving the lives of American troops, is creating a new imperative in the defense [...]

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