This week Marketplace airs a special series on the U.S. military and energy, and the Pentagon's quest to "unleash us from the tether of fuel." This spring and early summer, I reported on this series for the Marketplace sustainability desk.
This summer, Pentagon leaders rolled out a long-anticipated energy strategy for military operations in the field. The goal: "to transform the way the Department consumes energy."
Why now? Fuel convoy vulnerability in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few stats:
- 1 casualty every 24 supply convoys. That's the ratio in Afghanistan, according to this Army study. Casualties in Iraq occur less frequently.
- 22 gallons of fuel consumed, per soldier, per day. That's Deloitte's tally of military energy demand.
- Upwards of $45 dollars/gallon. That's the cost of moving petroleum to the battlefield, figures this estimate, factoring in transportation and military escorts.
The Official Response:
The Pentagon's public message: it's fully committed to shrinking its energy bootprint.
I asked Assistant Defense Secretary Sharon Burke when the military woke up to the energy problem (listen here):
"The a-ha moment that really got our attention was Gen. James Mattis, back in the 2004 time frame, coming back from both Afghanistan and Iraq, and saying 'unleash us from the tether of fuel.' He was seeing our fuel demand as a limitation on what we could do militarily."
Several departments have set aggressive goals for alternative, non-petroleum fuels. The Navy pledges to run on 50 percent alternative energy by 2016. It plans to sail a fossil fuel-free "Great Green Fleet" the same year. The Air Force plan commits to acquiring 50 percent of its domestic aviation fuel from alternative sources that emit less carbon.
Could This Stoke Innovation?
If the Pentagon buys large quantities of solar generators, drop-in replacement biofuels or renewable battery chargers, it could speed up innovation: the evolution from garage to prototype to market. One inventor compared his contract with the Marine Corps to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval in the eyes of lenders, investors and potential customers.
Optimists note the DoD's operated at the tip of the innovation spear in the past, incubating such technologies as GPS, radar, teflon and the Internet. And, yes, the military was among the first American institutions to integrate. Could today's efforts lead a clean-tech revolution, too?
Several retired officers fear commanders may ignore the topic on grounds of "I'm too busy fighting two-and-a-half wars."
Another barrier: military cultural inertia. One veteran thinks this whole energy program could prove another war-fighting fad that falls out of fashion when the next generation of uniformed and civilian leaders steps in.
And several wonder whether key technologies are ready. One think-tank study raises serious questions about alternative biofuels: will they be ready to commercialize in the next decade? Will they compete cost-wise with petroleum? Does the military gain any advantages using biofuels?
Blog posts featuring voices from the series:
The Historian: Pulitzer Prize winning energy analyst Daniel Yergin says warfighters' dependence on oil dates back to the eve of WWI.
The General: In 2006, Iraq Commander Gen. Richard Zilmer wrote an urgent-needs memo to the Pentagon, requesting alternative energy. The alternative: running dangerous fuel convoys and sustaining "serious and grave casualties."
The Spokesperson: Pentagon Operational Energy Chief Sharon Burke says it's essential to the military's core mission to incubate energy innovation.
The Loyal Skeptics: Col. Dan Nolan (ret.) argues Pentagon energy plan is "long on bumper stickers, short on substance." Gen. Steven Anderson (ret.) says military culture "does not embrace energy efficiency."
The Casualties: U.S. military convoy driver Robert Rowe on Iraqi human roadblocks in Iraq: "You just close your eyes and 'thump thump' you run over them." Fellow driver Cindy Morgan: "I knew if we stopped we're dead. I grabbed a gear and started plowing cars."
The Warfighters: Marines, 19 and 20 year olds, at the tip of the spear in Afghanistan, leveraging solar technology to improve their mission.
The Technologist: Col. Bob Charette on taking the Marine Corps into a new energy age.
The Solar Entrepreneur: Zach Lyman of ZeroBase on bringing new energy to the old-school military.
The Biofuels Entrepreneur: Harrison Dillon of Solazyme on the military pushing the biofuels industry forward.
The Reality Checker: James Bartis of the Rand Corporation on the question marks facing the biofuels sector.