Budget Deal Could Fuel Pentagon Green Energy Blitz

The congressional budget deal could lead to a $90 million increase in Department of Defense (DoD) spending on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects despite general Republican and Trump administration opposition to such investments. Those projects—ranging from building wind turbines at military installations to developing battery storage technology—meet both national and climate security objectives and highlight the number of areas in which interests in protecting the environment and safeguarding national security overlap.

The U.S. military is the world’s largest single consumer of energy, meaning that attempts to reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency at the Department of Defense would help minimize the U.S. carbon footprint. In 2014, the U.S. military emitted over 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, and that number omits overseas bases, vehicles, and equipment. For context, its emissions would have ranked it among the top 25 percent of nations according to the World Bank. In fact, the U.S. military’s 2016 fiscal year expenditure for energy alone was higher than the entire annual gross domestic product of the Bahamas. Environmental reasons aside, the Defense Department itself has significant security incentives to invest in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and battery storage. 

Meeting Mission Requirements with Green Energy

Reducing fuel use can boost military operations, and spending less on energy frees up resources to meet other defense objectives. If the military cut its $14.28 billion annual energy expenditures (2007-2015 average) in half, for example, it could fund most of its $7.5 billion “unfunded priorities” list. Fossil fuel usage by the military has extreme costs attached to it: beyond just actual price of fuel, the cost of delivering it to far-flung and isolated outposts and installations must be considered. At one point, the DoD’s comptroller reportedly advised Congress that the fully burdened cost of a single gallon of fuel delivered to forward deployed forces in Afghanistan was $400. While numbers like that can place significant strain on defense budgets, the human costs are more troubling; one report found that thousands of U.S. troop or contractor casualties were attributable to attacks on vulnerable fuel supply convoys.

U.S. Central Command is replacing diesel light towers with efficient photovoltaic light carts such as this one in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Image Credit: U.S. Army

Renewable energy and efficiency investments can improve mission resilience and reduce costs at DoD’s installations too. For instance, a project at U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, ongoing investments are projected to reduce energy utility demand by 79 percent and water usage by 27 percent, saving the Marine Corps $6 million each year. Additional benefits can be easily derived from such projects, too.  Microgrids, battery storage, and on-site renewable energy generation provide installations with energy resilience and security, allowing them to power critical assets in the event of commercial grid outages due to cyber attacks or natural disasters. 

As such, the Pentagon has taken significant steps in this direction and set goals to increase renewable energy usage by 15 percent by the 2018 fiscal year, increase energy efficiency by 1.5 percent per year, and reduce petroleum consumption by two percent per year. While these figures may seem small, the actual numbers being thrown around are not; for instance, the Navy and Marine Corps invested $208 million in building-level energy conservation projects in the 2016 fiscal year. Between 2011 and 2016, DoD invested over $2.2 billion in performance contracts to modernize energy infrastructure and improve energy efficiency at military bases. The potential for savings are quite large too; one report found that DoD could save $1 billion a year by bringing its installation building energy efficiency to standards held by other federal agencies. These projects poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the clean energy industry. 

Members of the U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office exhibiting the Joint Infantry Company Prototype (JIC-P) system "featuring bionic and solar power that enables Marines and Soldiers to patrol longer without resupply." This system won the Business Intelligence Group's 2016 Innovation Award and 3,000 business leaders selected it as a "best of the best" finalist for Alternative Energy at the 2016 Edison Awards which honor new products and innovation. 

Defense Research Boosting Energy Innovation

The Department of Defense plays an important role in supporting research that will drive future energy improvements too. DoD is the largest participant in a federal program providing seed funding for early-stage innovations that are too high risk for the private sector and has offices overseeing the transition of appropriate military technology to public use. This is particularly important given the unusually minuscule amount of resources risk-averse energy companies devote to research and development.

DoD’s next generation energy technologies include innovations in renewable energy and battery storage that are already being tested for deployment to increase mobility, cut the weight of equipment carried by troops, and reduce reliance on fuel supply lines. Some energy initiatives are providing significant cost savings, too. The Navy’s ongoing switch to energy efficient ship lighting could save $150 million per year. By 2020, DoD plans to invest some $244 million in initiatives to diversify its operational fuel supply and reduce energy consumption, and that doesn’t even cover planned spending at its installations at home.

Those plans may change now. The recently announced budget deal would increase annual defense spending by some $136 billion by 2019 (up 19.19 percent from fiscal year 2017 levels). Evenly distributed among DoD programs, a 20 percent budget boost would increase annual defense spending on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects by $90 million a year. While Congress won’t actually appropriate that funding for a few weeks—meaning the check has not yet been written—the Trump Administration appears unlikely to intervene despite the White House’s attempts to defund similar research. According to senior defense officials, DoD’s cost and security interests in renewable energy, efficiency, and innovation won’t be interfered with, and such initiatives even have the overt support of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

About the Authors

Christian Stirling Haig

Scoville Fellow, Nuclear, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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