Clean energy isn't just environmentally friendly, as many military leaders see a shift to renewable energy as a way to make the U.S. soldier more effective.
During President George W. Bush’s era, his administration directed the military to start procuring renewables and implement efficiency programs as early as 2003. The pace quickened under President Barack Obama, as utilities inked agreements to provide renewables to stateside bases, and the U.S. Navy built its Great Green Fleet that showed its ability to transition away from traditional fuel sources into more alternative methods.
Though a key argument over climate change as a national security threat could undermine some of the progress, military leaders say it’s unlikely a Trump administration will unravel these programs since they strengthen the United States’ fighting forces.
“The efforts the military have undertaken over the last five years to add renewables and efficiency will ultimately result in a force that has greater endurance, greater mission stay-time, and greater lethality,” retired U.S. Navy Captain Jim Goudreau told Utility Dive.
Now the head of climate efforts for Novartis Business Services, Goudreau spent over two decades as a supply corps logistician. From 2009 to 2011, he ran amphibious operations logistics support for Seventh Fleet operations, from Hawaii to Pakistan and Vladivostock to the Antarctic, before moving to the Pentagon, eventually landing a place as the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy.
“The efforts the military have undertaken over the last five years to add renewables and efficiency will ultimately result in a force that has greater endurance, greater mission stay-time, and greater lethality,”
retired U.S. Navy Captain
A transition by the military to renewables and efficiency “will also result in a force with greater resilience to things that could happen to the grid here or to the supply chain on a deployment,” he added. “They will be able to work through those things. That is the reason that matters most for this effort to continue.”
The Department of Defense has laid out goals to obtain more of their energy from renewables. One goal plans to obtain 20% renewable energy by 2020, while another is to reduce the energy intensity of its facilities 37.5% below 2003 levels, also by 2020. These goals aim to reduce energy costs, which currently exceed $4 billion, or 26% of DOD expenditures.
If successful, the DOD will be able to “increase future war-fighting capability” and “reduce logistics and operational risks from operational energy vulnerabilities,” while enhancing the effectiveness of their mission, according to the DoD 2016 Operational Energy Strategy.
President Trump’s election has thrown some of those goals in doubt, especially given his past remarks about renewable energy, but others point to his Secretary of Defense, former Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, as a possible cheerleader for those goals.
“I have known Jim Mattis for decades and served with him many times,” said Stephen Cheney, retired Marine Corps Brigadier General and now CEO of the American Security Project. “I believe he will look at the use of renewables from the security perspective and ask if it will help make this nation more secure, protect our armed forces, and make the force more efficient. Not polluting the atmosphere is a plus but the overriding factor for him is that it is an important contribution to national security.”
How the military got into renewables
During the Iraq war, General Mattis helped spur the military shift away from fossil fuel sources after an all-out attack in Baghdad in 2003.
After that attack, he said the need for fuel resupply slowed the attack more than the enemy, urging the DOD to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.” A report from the Army Environmental Policy Institute found there was one casualty for every 38.5 fuel supply convoys in Iraq alone.
To wean itself off those fuel supplies, the Marine Corps launched a “proof of concept” pilot project to show how the military could sustain its defenses and national security by finding alternative modes of fuel and power.
“India Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment deployed in Afghanistan and what they did is a really successful example of how renewables can be used in the battle space,” Goudreau said.
The Marines’ Experimental Forward Operating Base (ExFOB) included a flexible solar panel for powering small electronics and a solar tarp/tent cover to power the tent’s lighting system. A bigger solar array powered four computers at a platoon-sized command center. A solar-plus-battery system with six large solar modules was used to power a site with 20-plus lighting systems and 15 computers.
“They concentrated on three forward operating bases and were able to eliminate convoys to two of the three over an extended period,” Goudreau said. “No trucks rolled and nobody had to go into harm’s way and risk being killed while moving fuel. At the third base, they were able to cut the resupply requirement by about 90%.”
They were also able to do a three week foot patrol without battery resupply, despite carrying 700 pounds less fuel and batteries, he added.
“We were the only company that had sufficient energy the entire time,” mission leader Captain Stephen Cooney told reporter David Roberts.
The success of the mission convinced leaders of all the service branches to pursue the opportunity.
"Years ago, the belief was you could either be efficient or a capable war-fighter... We have found they are inter-dependent. By being more efficient, you become a better war-fighter.”
retired U.S. Navy Captain
Since 2009, ExFOB’s Expeditionary Energy Concepts (E2C) team has reviewed 300-plus technologies and assessed 100-plus technologies in nine demonstrations. They continue to refine the solar technologies used in Afghanistan and have added LED lighting. A new, mobile, integrated hybrid micro-grid system has been field-demonstrated to increase fuel savings by 50% and cut generator use by 80%.
“Years ago, the belief was you could either be efficient or a capable war-fighter,” Goudreau said. “We have found they are inter-dependent. By being more efficient, you become a better war-fighter.”
Now each military branch has outlined its own targets for achieving its renewable energy goals. The Army plans to source 25% of total energy usage from renewable energy by 2020, deploy 1 GW of renewable installations by 2025, and reach net zero energy consumption by 2030, according to ACORE.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy wants to source 50% of its energy consumption from renewable energy, as well as its “ashore-based energy requirements.” The Navy also plans to deploy 1 GW of renewable capacity from installations by 2020, and met its deadline to put its so-called Great Green Fleet into service by 2016.
As military branches continue to deploy more renewables, a case can be made for a military running on clean energy if it is tied to the need for better national security, Goudreau and Cheney said.
Making the case for clean energy
While Cheney and Goudreau are deeply concerned about climate change, they also see how a case can be made for renewables and energy efficiency without partaking in the climate change debate.
A recent inspection of the Nellis Air Force Base 14.2 MW photovoltaic solar installation that supplies 25% of the base’s electricity reminded Cheney of the time he spent as a base commander. “I was tethered to the local electric grid and we paid for our electricity,” he said. “These projects get away from depending on and paying the utility while also not causing any CO2.”
Goudreau got a close look at the value of these efforts during his time at the Pentagon. The Navy’s Renewable Energy Program Office (REPO) has now put over 1 GW of renewables into the contracting pipeline, and renewables are becoming a fundamental part of the supply chain, he said. To procure the renewables, the Navy uses the same financial arrangements used by corporate renewables buyers. “Every base will have a unique approach based on its location.”
Because base power supply is typically handled at the regional level, the transition to renewables may have gone almost unnoticed by base commanders, he added. “They still have power every day. The only thing they may have noticed is that the contracts came in at or under the cost of brown power.”
When procurement is through utilities, the conversations are becoming easier but are not yet consistently easy, Goudreau said. “The military base is probably the biggest single customer a utility has. There should be discussions about the best way to handle that base’s load reliably and those conversations will continue to develop and mature.”
Beyond renewable energy, a new discussion has recently emerged over microgrids that incorporate distributed generation, storage and demand response management. A 2016 report forecasts the defense and military segment will be the biggest microgrid users in North America by 2020.
A notable example of a microgrid project is one for the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, CA that uses fuel cell batteries paired with solar panels. Other reports underline this theme, saying that military bases are prime ground for microgrid projects. From the military perspective, these microgrid discussions are “less about cost savings and more about resilience,” Goudreau said, while also provoking interaction between the bases and the cities, towns, and states where they are located.
The focus is understanding what is necessary to keep both the base and the local community’s first responder network, shelters, and hospitals operating, he said. “Even if the military base has the power and lights and everything is operational, it can’t do the mission if all its team members are stranded outside its gate.”
From Cheney’s perspective, the Navy’s Great Green Fleet has been especially impressive as the price of biofuels fueling the fleet have come down in price significantly. “That should appeal to a businessman like Donald Trump,” he said.
The fleet is named after Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, which showcased early 20th century U.S. military readiness. The purpose is to allow the Navy and Marines to “go farther, stay longer and deliver more firepower,” according to the Navy. Besides running on cost-effective biofuels, it uses cutting-edge Energy Conservation Measures (ECMs) in its normal operations.
From his work in logistics, Goudreau has come to see renewables as making Marines “more flexible, more lethal, and more able to do their job,” he said. “That is true at forwarding operating bases in Afghanistan and on Navy ships at sea.”
The shift to biofuels has allowed the Navy more flexibility, Goudreau said. “Strategic diversity is a long but critical play because it reduces vulnerability by increasing the options for sourcing energy. It reduces the effort and time necessary to align with allies and procure and protect access to petroleum-based fuels.”
Ultimately, shifting from fossil fuels, especially in the transportation sector, can help the government avoid unwise alliances. “Diversity allows smarter decisions,” he said.
Climate change's role in the military's commitment to renewable energy
Despite the difficulty in pitching renewable energy investments as a way to combat climate change, some military veterans think the conversation is pretty cut and dry.
"There are few easy answers, but one thing is clear: the current trajectory of climatic change presents a strategically-significant risk to U.S. national security, and inaction is not a viable option," according to a recently-released Center for Climate and Security statement.
“Those who think climate change is not contributing to instability are sticking their heads in the sand, but they cannot ignore the facts.”
retired Brigadier General, USMC
More than a dozen former senior military and national security officials signed on, according to Reuters, including retired General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, and retired Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of Pacific Command until last year.
“Almost all bases and stations on the coast are threatened by sea level rise and sinking ground and the poster child is Norfolk Naval Base, the biggest naval base in the world,” Cheney said. “The piers are going underwater and budget increases have been needed to keep them servicing ships.”
Ignoring impacts from climate change is contributing to global instability, Cheney said. “Those who think climate change is not contributing to instability are sticking their heads in the sand, but they cannot ignore the facts.”
As President Trump starts rolling out his national security agenda, his stance on climate change could take it off the table as a potential threat.
Former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, now confirmed as Secretary of State, outlined the Trump's administration's perspective on climate change as a national security threat: “Our ability to predict that effect is very limited...I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do.”
Cheney, on the other hand, is confident that General Mattis will understand the danger climate change poses to national security, but he recognizes “it may be an uphill climb to convince others coming into the cabinet of this.”
Goudreau agreed that dealing with climate change denial “is the fundamental problem.” But, he said, “I come back to the facts: They show sea level is rising, the temperature is rising, and ocean acidification is real. The science behind those data readings is simple and fact-based.”
Island nations in Micronesia, for example, are disappearing into the ocean and sea level rise is making U.S. military bases less serviceable, he added. That recognition must lead to “an adult conversation about mitigation versus adaptation and the right balance of the two,” Goudreau said. “It is our responsibility as professionals to recognize change and make difficult but informed decisions about how to deal with it."
One of those key decisions will be whether to support the ongoing shift by the military to renewables and efficiency. It is important for decision-makers to understand that the decision is not about choosing between being efficient and being an effective war-fighter because they are not mutually exclusive, Goudreau said. “It is about taking care of the mission and bringing everyone home alive.”
Part of that mission includes a commitment to international climate change agreements, Cheney said.
“A tweet is not a policy and the proof will be the policy they propose to Congress and what Congress funds,” he said. “If we pull out of the Paris agreement, we give world leadership on climate over to Russia and China.”
By taking on that responsibility, the U.S. can “use clean technology to improve our lives, lower the price of power, decrease our dependence on oil, stop the pollution generated by burning fossil fuels, and be safer,” Cheney said. “It is a win-win-win and it can be done. Abandoning leadership is just foolish.”
Climate can be mitigated, he insisted. “I am not a defeatist — but I am an alarmist. If we just let it go, it will get worse, the arctic will melt, and there will be worsening security problems.”