US Military Driving Clean Energy Innovation

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US Military Driving Clean Energy Innovation

Seeking alternative fuels benefits national security, and offers a chance for cooperation with China.

Cyber security might be dominating the news cycle, but another conversation is taking place among key domestic and international leaders that is equally critical to U.S. national security: energy.

Internationally, during their recent talks in California, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the importance of increased interaction between their countries, the two largest consumers of energy on the planet. And in addition to untying the Gordian knot in Syria, leaders at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland will have energy on their agenda.

Domestically, recent discussions have centered on soaring North American oil production and energy independence. A recent International Energy Agency report stated that a “surge in North American oil production will be…transformative to the market over the next five years….”  Further, the report found that, “the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest oil producer before 2020, and the U.S. will be energy independent by 2030.”  The promise of North American energy independence is dangerously seductive.

It is important to remember that oil is a commodity. No matter how much oil the United States produces domestically, the volatile global energy market – a market that cannot be controlled by one nation – sets the price. So even if the projections for 2030 hold true, global supply and demand trends will continue to shape our prosperity at home. To add context, the Department of Defense (DoD) estimates that for every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, American taxpayers incur an additional $130 million in fuel costs.

The Obama administration’s continued investment in bio-fuels and other clean or renewable energy technologies is grounded squarely within U.S. security interests.

Political and military leaders within DoD are investing to increase efficiency and diversify sources of energy, not because they are ardent environmentalists, but to increase U.S. war-fighting capabilities. Any Marine who has had to manage finite quantities of resources, many of which have to be carried on patrol, quickly and deeply internalizes the value of conservation and efficiency.

The global presence of the American military requires a tremendous amount of fuel, and carries a huge cost. DoD is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States. Last year, the military used 4.3 billion gallons of fuel, at a cost of approximately $20 billion. In Afghanistan, the department estimates using 45 million gallons of fuel per month.

Energy choices save lives on the battlefield. In Afghanistan, by using solar blankets and other alternative energy technologies, the Marine Corps was able to shed 700 pounds of batteries from a foot patrol. That is 700 fewer pounds the Marines had to carry. This patrol was able to operate for three weeks without a battery resupply. The Marines put 208 fewer trucks on the road, and saved an estimated 5.4 million gallons of gas and kept supply convoys off roads. By investing in efficient technology, the Marine Corps is lighter, less reliant on re-supply, and is achieving greater operational reach with less risk.

The Navy is also investing in energy innovation. Last summer, during the biggest naval exercise in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy sailed an entire carrier battle group, including its aircraft, using a 50/50 mix of bio-fuels and conventional fuels.

This DoD-led innovation in alternative and efficient energy is being globalized. Soon after the exercise in the Pacific, the Australian Navy signed an agreement with the Pentagon to partner on the development of bio-fuels. The British Army is partnering with the Marines to do the same.

Managed effectively, the globalization of demand for alternative and efficient energy could also be used to increase military-to-military interaction between the United States and China. Doing so could boost U.S.-China bilateral relations and have positive influence in the Middle East.

Meaningful interaction between U.S. and Chinese leaders on energy will bring the two nations closer and will alter the trajectory of world energy consumption. Demand from DoD is driving frenzied innovation in clean and more efficient energy technology. Adding the world’s largest energy consumer will change the game.

An alternatively and efficiently fueled military is not a fringe environmental pursuit. Rather, it reflects a vital national security choice that we must make.

The author is a Major in the United States Marine Corps and these views are his own.