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Under the Radar

The Department of Defense might not care about the environment, but it's quietly leading the quest for renewable energy.


The Department of Defense might not care about the environment, but it's quietly leading the quest for renewable energy.

Last summer, Marine Corps Major General Richard Zilmer, the head of coalition forces in western Iraq, sent an "urgent request" to the Pentagon, asking for new gear. At the top of his list was a "priority 1" plea for renewable power stations, equipped with "solar panels and wind turbines."It's not as if General Zilmer was suddenly worried about global warming instead of insurgents. Constantly resupplying out-of-the-way bases with fossil fuels puts troops at risk of "serious and grave casualties" on Iraq's roadways, Zilmer noted in his request. Not to mention the expense: Factor in transportation and storage, and the price of a gallon of fuel in Iraq can be as high as $400. Green power had become a battlefield necessity.Efforts like these have put the Defense Department at the vanguard of a new wave of self-interested environmentalists-motivated not by calls to conscience, but by calls to the bottom line, and to personal and corporate preservation. Companies and individuals could learn a thing or two from the men in uniform, like being realistic in their investments, and not becoming married to a single clean-power technology. The Pentagon's new environmentalism also contains a hard lesson for anyone looking to throw spitballs at these untraditional greens. Motivation doesn't matter. Results do. And if generals, carmakers-or even oil-company execs-suddenly find it's best for them to get on the clean-power bandwagon, we should welcome them on board, not question why they're here. "Before, this was always viewed as a zero-sum game-you were either environmental or profit-driven," says Ethan Zindler, an analyst at New Energy Finance. "But with $60 barrels of oil, the two now go hand in hand. And that's good for everybody."The Defense Department is the world's largest energy consumer, spending $10.6 billion annually, almost two percent of the entire country's use. So there's plenty of motivation for the military to wean itself off of fossil fuels. It has already made a pretty decent start: In September 2005, the federal government decreed that 7.5 percent of its power should come from renewable sources by 2013. The Pentagon is already there.
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The Pentagon has a hard lesson for anyone looking to throw spitballs at these untraditional greens.
How? By staying flexible, for starters-using whatever renewable resource makes the most sense, given the location. In sunny San Diego, California, Naval Base Coronado's solar power is saving the annual equivalent of 6,000 barrels of oil. Wind turbines help Warren Air Force Base in gusty Wyoming, keeping 4,866 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from escaping into the atmosphere per year. Then there are the nine military bases that are powered geothermally, by the heat of the earth. California's Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake kicks off 270 megawatts of electricity, keeping lights turned on as far away as Los Angeles.All of these approaches are proven energy-savers-this isn't solar panels as window dressing. And none of them required massive new infrastructure investments in order to work. (The Pentagon is, however, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to radically improve renewable gear like solar panels.) Contrast that with the behavior of some energy-eating companies, who seem joined at the hip to a single far-off approach that would require a country-wide extreme environmental makeover (I'm looking at you, GM, and those hydrogen fuel cells of yours).These military investments have been done quietly-unlike the full-page ads that energy companies seem to run every time they drop a dime into an eco-friendly account. The Pentagon isn't like oil giant Chevron, which trumpets its alternative fuels research, while spending big to kill California's ethanol-promoting Proposition 87.The Defense Department's big green push, in some sense, hasn't really gotten under way. Plans for diesel-electric Humvees and tanks, in the works for years, have been slowed because of battery issues. But the goal is very much front and center-as is a synthetic replacement for the jet fuel currently gobbled up by the Air Force; a B-52 running synthetic fuel flew in September. And General Zilmer's solar and wind generators? The military's first "Transportable Hybrid Electric Power Station" is scheduled to head into the field in February. It's amazing what a little self-interest can do.
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