by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Instructor
In the hallways, offices and hearing rooms of energy policy makers the debate goes on. Are renewables just a fashionable trend that we as a nation can’t afford to spend our time and money on, or are they critical to our society’s future? The traditional fuel industries tell regulators that they should require the energy companies to focus on the lowest cost sources available, which to the industry executives mean existing fuel sources (for instance, see comments by Peabody Chairman and CEO Gregory Boyce).
Others argue that the true cost of fossil fuels is not embodied in today’s prices and that a number of benefits can accrue from moving to more sustainable resources (see a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists arguing the benefits of clean energy for the Midwest U.S.)
Lately a surprising new player, the U.S. military, has shifted its focus on the value of renewable energy. According to the Sierra Club, the U.S. military uses more petroleum and more total energy than any other organization on the planet. It accounts for 80% of the U.S. federal government’s energy tab.* Given this statistic, one would think the U.S. military would focus on cheap energy sources rather than the “softer side” of energy. But interestingly the U.S. military has become a big supporter of renewable energy for a variety of practical reasons. In fact, the Department of Defense has a goal of providing 26% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It is currently using 11.3% renewable energy and is on track to meet its 26% goal if efforts continue, according to Office of Management and Budget.**
Why has the military suddenly joined the same side of the energy debate as the “tree huggers”? Because military planners and top leaders have concluded that it makes sense. One of the biggest requirements for military transport is moving fuel. Watch the news and you will continually hear reports of military convoys being attacked. Replace a diesel generator with solar cells and batteries and suddenly your transport needs have declined significantly.
A modern infantry soldier often carries five pounds of batteries just to maintain the communication and other electronic devices used in the field. Replace most of the batteries with a fold-up solar charger and suddenly everyone’s pack is lighter.
When running a military base, in the U.S. or elsewhere, one of the commander’s biggest concerns is energy security. Each knows that if a base’s energy supply is cut, it is highly vulnerable. By developing localized smart grids that are not dependent on the larger utility grid outside the base, commanders can rest more easily knowing that someone blowing up a transmission line won’t impact the base’s electricity.
And by developing realistic alternatives to fossil fuels for powering airplanes and ships, the military reduces its risk that foreign oil producers will pull the plug on necessary fuel supply.***
Assuming the military does achieve the goal of 26% renewable energy in the current decade, what does this mean for the rest of us? We now take for granted a number of technologies that once had a military beginning – the Internet, microwave ovens, GPS, jet engines, and even SUVs. These technologies were once too expensive for the common citizen, but today they are mainstream conveniences. A military push into renewable energy will likely accelerate the day that renewables will stand side by side with conventional energy sources in pure economic analyses.*See http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201107/blood-and-oil.aspx **See http://www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/2011/06/pdf/energy_security_memo.pdf ***See http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2015419818_milbiofuels26.html and http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=3885995