Military Continues to Move Forward on Clean Energy

Speaking at a conference on international security last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said: “Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters -- all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world.”

In other words, climate change, in addition to the toll it takes on our health and the economy, also poses risks to national security. The Department of Defense has been addressing the military challenges posed by climate change for more than a decade. In recent years, the DOD has embraced a strategy that will improve energy efficiency in the military, explore and develop new energy technologies, and expand the use of renewable energy on bases and in the field. The Navy and Air Force are aiming to get half their energy from alternative sources by 2020.  The Marines have set a goal to be 50 percent more fuel-efficient in the battlefield by 2025. The Army’s goal is to use 25 percent renewable energy by 2015. The military’s direction is clear: a focus on clean energy and efficiency makes for a more nimble, effective fighting force. Secretary Hagel’s speech signals his commitment to continue on this track, and reinforces the essential role clean energy plays in achieving our national security goals, while reaping benefits for the economy and our environment.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, one of five Army bases seeking to achieve net-zero energy use, recently issued a draft plan to improve energy efficiency and generate renewable energy on site. NRDC has been helping advise academy faculty and personnel on clean energy for the past two years. Options under consideration at West Point include installing solar panels on the field house roof (without covering up slogans that say “SINK NAVY!” and “BEAT AIR FORCE!”), solar hot water, geothermal heat pumps, and combined heat and power systems that provide electricity, heating and cooling efficiently. West Point already has two small solar installations and a wind turbine. The draft plan represents a major push forward. The plan’s authors write, “…addressing energy security and sustainability is operationally necessary, financially prudent and essential to mission accomplishment.”

Renewable energy has already taken root throughout the military. North America’s largest solar photovoltaic power plant is at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Solar panels at Fort Dix in New Jersey are saving the Army $160,000 each year in energy costs. Fort Bliss, in Texas, which has been using solar power for years, is set to break ground on a new 20-megawatt solar farm—the largest renewable energy project in military history.

Renewable energy installations on military-controlled lands are expected to generate 3,000 megawatts of energy by 2025. That’s 50 percent more energy than the Hoover Dam, and enough to power 750,000 homes. To help ensure that the push to develop renewable energy moves forward smoothly, NRDC and the DOD just released a primer for renewable energy developers. Large-scale renewable energy projects are often sited on or near land used by the military for training and testing. These same lands often hold immense environmental value as well, supporting critical natural resources and rare and threatened wildlife. For a renewable energy project to get off the ground successfully, military and environmental concerns need to be considered up front. The primer provides guidance for developers on how to screen wind and solar projects for potential conflicts. In order to scale up the renewable energy we all want and need, these projects need to be smart from the start.

The DOD is already seeing positive results from its clean energy shift. In Afghanistan last year, energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, including the use of solar energy at combat outposts, saved roughly 20 million gallons of fuel. Improving energy efficiency and using renewable energy in military operations not only saves money—it also saves lives. The Army estimates that 170 soldiers died protecting fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 alone.

The DOD’s work to scale up its use of clean, renewable energy use has impacts that ripple beyond the military theater. As the nation’s largest purchaser of energy, the DOD has the potential to drive changes in the clean energy market. By increasing demand for clean, renewable energy in order to meet its goals of military readiness and protecting national security, the DOD can help boost the expansion of clean energy in the private sector as well. And the cleaner our energy system gets, the more we reduce the risks we all face from climate change.