Tip of the Green Spear: The Military Leads on Efficiency, Alternative Energy

Doe-eyed do-gooders aren't the face of environmentalism, the U.S. military is.

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Mike Signer is the chairman of the E3 Initiative of the Progressive Policy Institute and a principal of the Truman National Security Project. In 2009, he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Virginia.

To some critics, the cause of alternative and sustainable energy will always be associated with the image of dewy-eyed do-gooders earnestly plying a hopeless cause. This caricature has helped opponents today, such as the conservative columnist George Will; by mocking activists as naive idealists, they make the cause they represent seem naive and hopeless as well.

However, it might surprise opponents—and even supporters—that the most innovative and effective actors in the carbon-reduction arena bear zero resemblance to this outdated cartoon. No hemp-wearing hippies here: Today, it's the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard who are aggressively pursuing plans for sustainable energy, reducing carbon, and achieving energy independence.

It's no mystery why: Our armed men and women are truly the point of the spear. The services aren't motivated just by the "soft power" of moral authority or the pursuit of idealism for its own sake. It's in fact "hard power" concerns—the security of our troops, the economic independence of our energy supply, and the long-term need to better control the geopolitical implications of climate change—that have driven the military to take the lead.

Consider the facts. Today, an infantry soldier on a three-day mission in Afghanistan carries over 25 pounds of batteries to charge his equipment, hampering his maneuverability and can even causing muscular-skeletal injuries. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces have suffered chilling casualties guarding convoys of trucks carrying oil. Meanwhile, every $10 increase in the price of oil translates into a $1.3 billion increase in the Pentagon's operating costs.

In all of these cases, clean energy and efficiency programs would not only help reduce our carbon output and achieve energy efficiency; they would directly increase the effectiveness of our military.

This helps explain why the military is taking energy efficiency so seriously. A group of generals and admirals recently presented their cases for action at a conference held by the Pew Global Initiative, the Center for Naval Analysis, and the Military Officers Association of America in Crystal City, Va.—a stone's throw from the Pentagon. Retired Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, a former secretary of the Navy, and an ardent supporter of achieving new energy policies on national security grounds, headlined the meeting.

Their stories should silence skeptics and hearten supporters. Because of a concerted effort throughout the forces to achieve efficiency and enact alternative energy policies, energy use is down more than 10 percent since 2003. The Multi-National Force Iraq, for instance, has sprayed insulating foam on 9 million square feet of temporary structures—reducing energy by 40 to 75 percent—the equivalent of taking 12 fuel transport trucks off the road in Iraq every day. The Air Force is now purchasing 5percent of electricity from sustainable sources, including a 14.2 megawatt solar array at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada—the largest in America—which saves taxpayers $1 million a year. And the services are jointly developing "net zero" installations that produce as much energy as they use. These programs pair up nicely with the Navy and Marine Corps's Advanced Metering Infrastructure Program, which will place 12,000 more efficient meters around the world. Meanwhile, the Marines have announced plans to develop more efficient technology to reduce the battery packs troops carry.

Not only do these achievements show clean energy is deadly serious—they reveal a powerful new paradigm. As one commander put it at the Crystal City conference, the military is looking for "silver buckshot, not a silver bullet." The idea is that the military, through hundreds of pilot programs, investments, and new practices, can help seed the field for systemic change. Conversely, skeptics who try and shoot down positive action by saying that no single change can reduce carbon and achieve energy independence should hold their peace.