Lt. Cmdr. Lakeeva G, ... ]

Lt. Cmdr. Lakeeva G, ... ] U.S. Navy

Clean Energy Gets an Unlikely Ally: Military Veterans

A rising chorus of voices from the national security community are united by what is fast becoming a consensus view: investments in clean energy strengthens our national security and gives our service members an edge on the battlefield. By Chris Rey

This summer, Congress voted to cut funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency research by half. At the same time, it voted to slash the Department of Energy’s advanced energy projects agency by 80 percent.

Yet, just down the road at the Pentagon, another set of leaders are taking a clear stance on the issue—not with rhetoric, but action. A rising chorus of voices from the national security community, from senior military and intelligence officials to front-line combat veterans, are united by what is fast becoming a consensus view: investments in clean energy—including biofuels, wind, and solar power—strengthens our national security and gives our service members an edge on the battlefield.

The facts are stark: our reliance on fossil fuels puts our troops in greater risk abroad and endangers us here at home. Our enemies recognize our crucial weakness, one that our military leaders understand all too well - our single-source dependence on oil tethers our military to a volatile world market and requires enormous resources to protect a vast and vulnerable supply chain.

In warzones, the military must transport fuels to power remote Forward Operating Bases along vulnerable supply routes, threatening our mission and putting our men and women in uniform at greater risk. These transport lines became easy targets for the enemy.

Indeed, one in 24 fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan ended in an American casualty, with more than 3,000 Americans killed in fuel-supply convoys between 2003 and 2007 alone. Cutting the amount of fuel needed to power operations would reduce the number of casualties and lessen the risk of our men and women in uniform.

Our dependence on oil is also an expensive problem. As the largest institutional consumer of liquid fuels in the world, the U.S. military is incredibly susceptible to the volatile global oil market. The DoD spends $20 billion on energy each year, with $15 billion going to fuel costs. For every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the DoD is left with a $1.3 billion shortfall. When the price of oil spikes, funds must be repurposed away from critical training, maintenance, and mission-readiness programs. This means our sailors steam less, our pilots fly less, and our soldiers and Marines train less.

As a veteran, I saw firsthand the threat energy shortages pose to our military. As an active duty Signal Officer, I was responsible for overseeing the communications capabilities for a unit of more than 3,000 troops. Energy was critically important. If our generators ran out of fuel, soldiers in the battlefield could not communicate, putting them in grave danger.

Recognizing this threat, the Defense Department has invested in deployable renewable energy technologies that can cut costs and reduce risk to troops.

The Marines are using tactical solar panels and solar blankets to power their forward-operating bases, cutting down the need for dangerous fuel convoys on the battlefield. The Army is developing a hybrid Humvee with the same payload, protection and performance of a conventional Humvee — but with 90 percent better fuel efficiency. And the Air Force is deploying the world’s largest demonstration of vehicle-to-grid technology, using a fleet of electric vehicles to lower the electricity bills of military installations.

Equally innovative is the Pentagon’s investment in homegrown, advanced biofuels. These domestic fuel sources are already widely in use today, for example, powering the Army’s flex-fuel vehicles and the Air Force’s F16 fighter jets. Derived from non-food sources, like algae and camelina, advanced biofuels are molecularly identical to petroleum fuels. And because they can drop right into military equipment without expensive retrofits, they give our service members an alternative to volatile—and expensive—oil imports.

After serving as an active duty Signal Officer, I have continued my service in the Virginia National Guard. I continue to see first-hand the importance of the military’s innovative energy technologies, as older technologies are replaced with newer, more efficient technologies that require less fuel and improve mission capability. This is why it is critical for the military to continue to fund clean energy research that will strengthen our national security. 

In addition to serving in the National Guard, I currently serve as the mayor of Spring Lake, a city that is the gateway to Fort Bragg. In Spring Lake, we are proud of the innovative approach that Fort Bragg has taken to implement energy conservation and renewable energy programs. Fort Bragg adopted a program known as STORM that requires facilities to develop projects that include energy efficiency technologies. The program seeks to ensure all facilities operate at peak efficiency; trains occupants in energy conservation practices; renews facilities through retro-commissioning and targets renewable energy technology. These new measures not only make Fort Bragg a great neighbor but also a nation-wide leader in reducing our dependence on foreign oil. 

As Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, recently said, “By using alternative energy, by changing the way we use and produce energy, we’re going to continue to be the most formidable expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known.”

The secretary is right. Investment in clean energy is not just about saving the polar bears. It’s about maintaining our edge in a warzone—and at the same time, using taxpayer dollars more efficiently. It’s about making our military installations -- and neighboring communities – leaders on reducing our dependence on oil and strengthening our national and local energy security. Congress should revisit its decision to gut clean energy research and realize that our national security is on the line.

Chris Rey is mayor of Spring Lake, N.C., a former Major in the U.S. Army, and a partner at the Truman National Security Project.