Military’s Embrace Of Clean Energy Reduces Combat Casualties

The Army’s development of clean domestic energy resources strengthens national security and plays an important role in helping it to achieve its primary mission. As the world’s largest consumer of energy, the military’s recognition of the importance of reducing energy use and diversifying energy supplies, particularly beginning a shift from oil, has important ramifications for the economy and the environment.

On October 29, 2013, Environmental Entrepreneurs ("E2") presented “Mission Critical; Clean Energy in the U.S. Military” at  Simpson Thacher & Bartlett’s offices in New York. The speakers included Richard G. Kidd, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army;  Colonel Russell LaChance, a West Point faculty member who is shaping an energy management curriculum to train future Army leaders; Scott Sklar, the president of D.C. based Stella Group Ltd., who discussed potential business opportunities from DOD’s investment in clean energy technologies; and Kit Kennedy, Clean Energy Counsel at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The theme that emerged was DOD’s stance on aggressive objectives to reduce its fossil fuel dependence and invest in low carbon renewables and energy efficiency technologies. Military leaders contend that our current fuel mix is a national security threat, making Americans vulnerable overseas and at home.

The billions of dollars that Army is shifting toward solar energy, recycled water and better-insulated tents is not about saving the earth.  Instead, commanders in Afghanistan have found that they can significantly reduce casualty rates through energy conservation.  In Afghanistan, protecting fuel convoys is one of the most dangerous assignments. At the meeting, one participant with combat experience discussed how flying barrels of oil to remote parts of Afghanistan, apart from the exorbitant cost, places American lives at risk. Every humvee tow vehicle is subject to IED attack or ambush. 

"By reducing supply chain vulnerability, there are no commodity costs and there’s a lower chance of disruption", said the Army’s Mr. Kidd in an interview. "A fuel tanker can be shot at and blown up. The sun’s rays will still be there." 

At one remote Afghan base in Ghazni Province, there was so little available power that the base commander had to tap into the humvees for some power, which required soldiers to drive the vehicles around at night to recharge the batteries.  That problem was remedied when the base received a hybrid solar-diesel generator with capacity to store power for use after dark.

On November 22, 2013, at the Halifax International Security Forum, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined the growing threats of climate change and the importance of developing more clean, renewable energy and improving energy efficiency within the military. In particular, he noted that in 2012 "energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements such as tactical solar gear at combat posts in Afghanistan saved roughly 20 million gallons of fuel–taking 7,000 truckloads worth of fuel off the battlefield."

In a recent blog post, Kit Kennedy of NRDC discusses West Point’s march toward clean energy goals. She concludes by saying:

"Over the past two years, NRDC has had the privilege to offer advice and assistance to West Point academic faculty and energy facility personnel on West Point’s energy needs and clean energy plans. We salute West Point for taking this important step toward meeting its net zero energy goals….  NRDC’s next step will be to review and comment on the draft plan in detail so that we can offer our recommendations on how best to move forward."

A potential stumbling block to achieving these ambitious goals is the U.S. House of Representatives. The House has voted to ban DOD from purchasing biofuels until they are cheaper than fossil fuels.  There is also a move underway to prevent DOD from pursuing the development of advanced biofuels.  These and other regressive House initiatives threaten to force the military to go backward, hurt national and economic security, and jeopardize a fledgling American energy industry.