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America’s solar soldiers

The Pentagon turns to green energy — to save lives and build military strength.

NEW YORK — They’re some of the country’s most important environmental activists, poised to change the way we create, consume and conceive of energy.

But you won’t find this cadre of green preachers on a college campus, or emceeing the Sierra Club’s annual meeting.

You’ll find them, clad in blazers and pantsuits, pushing their agenda behind the guarded walls of the Pentagon.

Since the midpoint of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a handful of US military personnel have been doggedly pursuing efforts to cultivate energy independence for America’s armed forces.

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This group of “greenhawks,” as they’ve been dubbed, didn’t set out to kick-start a national conversation about alternative energy. But in their push to transform the country’s largest federal agency into one reliant on solar panels and hybrid vehicles rather than electric grids and gas-guzzling Humvees, they’ve arguably done exactly that.

“The needs of the Department [of Defense] have a long history of creating breakthroughs in the civilian realm,” says Sharon Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs. “And they have the potential to do that here.”

Burke has been at the forefront of the military’s green energy movement since 2009, when she was appointed to run a newly-created Pentagon office designed to strengthen operational energy capacities — that’s anything used to support military operations, from forward-operating bases to Naval ships. In that role, it’s become clear to Burke that green energy is the key solution.

“The demand signal for this came from our fielded forces [in Iraq and Afghanistan],” she says. “We’ve been moving so much fuel through difficult areas, in what’s really a new kind of battlefield.”

But much as Burke and her greenhawk allies — who include Gen. James Mattis, commander of the US Central Command, and Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy — are pushing for energy alternatives, they’re not doing it to assuage broader concerns about the eco-toll of conventional fuel. Rather, Burke and co. are intent on solving a single dilemma: How to create a stronger, more adaptable, more resilient American military.

“They have easily been the most forward-leaning of any federal agency,” Will Rogers, an expert in energy and national security at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), says. “And rightfully so. The military’s fuel demands are a major operational shortcoming.”

Indeed, energy has been one of the key limiting factors for US troops in this generation’s conflicts. The military spends $15 billion each year on energy, of which 80 percent is dedicated to oil. And by 2040, petroleum is expected to dwindle so severely that the military will no longer be able to rely on it, according to a recent CNAS report.

Outlandish fuel costs and reliance on oil-soaked Middle Eastern nations aside, the dependency creates a dangerous, unstable scenario for deployed soldiers: One of every eight Army fatalities in Iraq occurred during transit or protection of fuel convoys, according to a 2011 Pentagon study. By minimizing the necessity for such convoys, Burke and her colleagues hope to save lives at the same time.

Already, the military’s greenhawks have successfully launched several green-energy ventures that are being used by this generation’s soldiers — and could soon trickle into the consumer market.

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Soldiers have carried solar-based gadget rechargers into Afghanistan, and have introduced solar-powered generators at some outposts overseas. In one instance, Marines in Afghanistan curbed their fuel usage from 20 gallons a day to 2.5 gallons using solar-powered equipment.

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Military vehicles, including ships, planes and motor vehicles, are also being transformed to use less conventional fuel. The Navy, under Mabus’ leadership, recently sailed an entire aircraft carrier strike group powered with a combination of alternative energy sources. The Air Force has followed suit, funding research into fuel-efficient aircraft engines, and recently testing a synthetic jet fuel. And the military’s even given GM’s Chevy Volt a boost, in September announcing plans to buy 1,500 of the hybrid cars.

Despite these successes, the efforts of Burke, Mabus and others have also been met by widespread resistance within the Pentagon and in Congress. In particular, budgetary concerns have led some lawmakers and brass to criticize mega-expenditures — the Navy, for example, spent $12 million to fuel its green fleet demonstration.

“Sometimes people [at the Pentagon] seem to have these magical inboxes that seal themselves up,” Burke says. “But we’re keeping at it, staying persistent, and we’re keeping this conversation on the table.”

Assuming Burke and her allies soldier on, the military’s contribution to civilian energy usage could very well be monumental: The Pentagon’s multibillion annual energy budget, if dedicated in-part to alternative fuels, promises to both expand commercial exploits into green energy and reduce the overall costs — for companies and civilian consumers — of options like solar-powered devices and hybrid cars.

“The kinds of acquisitions the Department of Defense has the capacity to make will bear fruit for the commercial sector, and for ordinary Americans,” Rogers predicts. “It might not have been their goal, but these secondary effects could really have huge benefit.”