As the military commits itself to going green, it's supporting innovations that could ultimately help American consumers save energy
The Department of Defense is the single largest energy purchaser in America, if not the world. That's why the Navy's goal to source 50 percent of its energy from alternative fuels by 2020 potentially has huge ramifications for future fuel supplies and alternative energy technologies.
In the past year alone, the Navy has deployed portable solar panels, LED lighting systems, hybrid electric ship technologies, and, perhaps most significantly, so-called "green flights" (using aircraft powered by a mix of fossil fuels and biofuel). Some Marine Corps patrol bases in Afghanistan now operate exclusively on solar powered generators, while China Lake Base in California actually puts energy back into the grid. All of which raises a couple of questions. Why, exactly, is the Navy so determined to become green? And could the average consumer benefit from the new products the Navy is supporting?
Mabus added that our dependence on foreign oil leaves the armed forces vulnerable to volatile prices and supply fluctuations.
Regarding the first question, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told me that for every 50 marine fuel convoys, one soldier guarding a convoy is either killed or wounded. Navy ships are also most vulnerable when refueling. Alternative fuels and energy-efficient technologies could help limit the number of convoys required.
Mabus added that our dependence on foreign oil leaves the armed forces vulnerable to volatile prices and supply fluctuations, in which fuel might not be available when the Navy needs it. "We give countries that we would never give the ability to build our ships or our aircraft or our ground equipment a say in whether the ships sail or whether the aircraft flies or our ground equipment operates because we buy our fuel from them," Mabus says. When oil went up $18 a barrel in February and March, it cost the Navy roughly $550 million.
The Navy isn't sitting back waiting for new technologies to come its way, though. In March of 2010, it invited commercial vendors to bring their energy-efficient products to a temporary Experimental Forward Operating Base in Quantico, Virginia. After testing the gear, the Marine Corps chose several technologies to send into battle in Afghanistan last September with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. During their deployment, two patrol bases were able to operate everything but their vehicles solely on renewable energy, and a third cut its non-vehicle fuel use from 20 gallons per day to roughly 2.5 gallons. What made the difference? Switching from diesel generators to solar-powered generators to run computers, battery chargers, and other communication equipment.
To meet its 2020 goals that half of its energy come from alternative fuels, the Navy will also need 8 million barrels of biofuels at a price similar to that of petroleum. As of right now, some biofuels are significantly more expensive than standard aviation fuel, for example, but Hicks says that by partnering with the Department Of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the commercial airlines industry, the Navy may be able to achieve its goals even sooner than 2020.
"We're very encouraged by what we see in the emerging alternative fuels industry in this country and are very confident that it's going to be in the quantities at the price points we need to be able to use it in a very, very meaningful way," says Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy.
Biofuel expert Timothy Searchinger, however, told me that while the Navy's green strides are positive, he does have concerns about their biofuel initiatives. He worries that increased biodiesel demand will make it harder for the world's poor to obtain vegetable oils, an important source of calories, and that biofuel production may also cause habitat loss, require significant water inputs, and increase greenhouse gas emissions.