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Big Idea: A Green Energy Offensive From the Department of Defense

The military’s energy innovation can set the stage for a job-creating, deficit-reducing national shift.

The snarky back-and-forth of the 2012 presidential campaign may be entertaining, but this is our once-every-four-years chance to mix it up over the big challenges the United States is facing. We're launching the Campaign for Big Ideas to make the run for the White House smarter, bolder, and a lot more ambitious.

How often do the top climate change official at the World Wildlife Fund and a group of four-star generals share the same opinion on national security?

There is a growing consensus across the country that many politicians still don’t recognize and the 24-hour news cycle refuses to acknowledge: America’s dependence on imported fossil fuels is hampering our country’s ability to create jobs, reduce long-term energy costs—and keep our troops safe.

In the 20th century, our military defined energy security as a top-down, geopolitical concern. Our armed forces secured access to foreign oil and protected the shipping lanes that brought that oil to our shores. In the 21st century, we need the military to play a new role: spurring innovation in the race for renewable energy.

Over the past decades, the U.S. military has been a central driver of commercial innovation. When our armed forces needed to enhance their speed of communication in the face of a nuclear assault, we got the internet. When they needed to increase their ability to process information, we got the microprocessor. Today, our military is facing an energy crisis that requires new breakthroughs in technology.

How much does it cost the U.S. government to protect our oil supplies? In fiscal terms, between 1976 and 2007 it cost our military $7.3 trillion to patrol the Persian Gulf with aircraft carriers. Between 2001 and 2006, while thousands of troops lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military—much like average Americans—saw its budget squeezed as oil prices climbed to record highs. The U.S. economy’s growth has frequently been thwarted by shocks stemming from rising oil prices.

Those rising prices aren’t going away. The global economy of the 21st century is being defined by the "Rise of the Rest." Developing countries like China and India are industrializing rapidly and bringing millions of people out of poverty. The members of this new, global middle class demanding access to energy are already driving up the cost of fuel. This process makes our dependence on fossil fuels too expensive.

The Department of Defense has reacted to this challenge by investing in renewable energy innovation. In the face of growing costs in terms of lives and fuel, our military has developed a new approach to energy innovation that fundamentally changes the way we think about energy security. In order to compete economically and preserve our military dominance in the 21st century, the U.S. military is developing technologies that promote energy ownership: energy supplies that can be controlled by the user from production to consumption.

The DoD is investing in technologies that can supply self-sustaining units in combat theaters, from Navy aircraft carriers to forward deployed Marine bases. A focus on distributed generation, renewable energy, and American-made technologies is becoming increasingly ingrained in our military’s decision-making, and needs to take a larger role.

While the military’s foremost concern is operational effectiveness, a natural alignment of national security and economic interests is helping drive commercial innovation with the potential to spur the creation of American jobs and reduce the federal deficit through a variety of avenues that should be widened as the DoD doubles down on green energy.

Distributed power is about increasing prosperity at home and keeping our soldiers safe abroad. As military innovation continues to drive U.S. renewable fuels technology, the nation will become increasingly energy self-sufficient, stabilizing and then decreasing the cost of energy for the American consumer. One of the core values of new energy technologies to the military is that they free our soldiers from fuel resupply lines, allowing for increased mobility and range while decreasing combat risks. Between 2003 and 2007 in Iraq, the Army reports that one out of eight casualties were a result of protecting fuel convoys. At home, the Army is trying to get bases in Texas and Colorado to Net Zero status, only using as much energy as they produce. As these types of technologies are commercialized, home owners, farmers, and businesses will be able to produce their own energy and sell their surplus back to “the grid.”

This approach can provide domestic economic security by hedging against price shocks in energy markets. Changing where our energy comes from—from international to local sources—and how it is delivered provides insurance against increasingly violent natural disasters. Local solutions also keep money circulating in communities rather than sending our dollars abroad to autocratic regimes and failed states.

Renewable energy makes long-term fiscal sense. The Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of liquid fuels in the world, but since 2001 the military has realized the potential cost savings of efficiency and renewable energy. Between 2007 and late 2008 the price of crude oil increased from approximately $60 a barrel to nearly $135 a barrel. The resulting cost to DoD, and thus U.S. taxpayers, exceeded $9.7 billion for that fiscal year. Spikes in fuel prices such as this strain our military’s infrastructure, forcing the early retirement of planes and warships, shutting down the development of new weapons systems, or eating into investments in personnel training. Ensuring that the military can acquire fuel sources at stable, controllable prices will ensure that investments in machines and manpower will not face unexpected budget cuts in the future.

The same principle applies to U.S. consumers. If you’re a home owner, a business owner, or a farmer, access to cost-competitive renewable energy means you won’t have to worry about making economic sacrifices to rising fuel costs. Investments in renewable technologies will free the U.S. military, and the citizens it defends, from a volatile global oil market.

The ‘made in America’ clause in the 2011’s Department of Defense Authorization Act will ensure that the return on investments in clean energy R&D are realized in the form of manufacturing jobs. The military’s understanding that we cannot shift from imported oil to imported solar cells will create a crucial market for still fragile clean energy technologies. Supporting these technologies and growing domestic markets will eventually help us close our national trade imbalance.

The military alone cannot generate the energy innovation that our country needs. Although the Department of Defense is the world’s single largest fuel buyer, it accounts for less than 2 percent of total US energy consumption. Because of the ubiquity of energy consumption, the department will never buy enough energy technologies from U.S. businesses to single-handedly drive the market.

Rather, it is the military’s bottom-up, community-focused approach to energy innovation that is important: Distributed power produced by renewable energy technology made in the United States can keep our military safe, create jobs, and reduce the US deficit. Without firing a shot, the military can lead us to victory.

Illustration by Bijan Berahimi

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