The U.S. military has begun a transition to efficient and renewable energy. The Army is proceeding with its “Net Zero Energy” initiative, aiming to produce as much energy and water as they use. Cost and reliability are the primary reasons, but cutting carbon pollution is one of the outcomes.

Last month, the head of U.S. forces in the Pacific said that climate change is a top concern for the military. Two recent discussions shed some light on the efforts currently underway to allow the military to use less carbon-based fuels, as well as the explicit and implicit reasons behind those efforts.

Fueling the combat theater

Last week, Mike Breen, Executive Director of the Truman Project, hosted a conversation with Sharon E. Burke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs at the Department of Defense. Entitled “Clean and Mean: DoD’s Tactical and Operational Energy Innovations,” it covered some of the tactics the military uses to more efficiently carry out its mission on the front lines.

Breen, a former U.S. Army infantry officer who served in Iraq, recalled the status quo at forward operating bases dependent on fossil fuel: loud, inefficient generators burning gasoline; unsealed tents that allowed air conditioning systems to cool the desert (racking up a $20 billion a year utility bill); transmission and supply lines that began to feel more like a ball and chain weighing down mission-ready units.

The U.S. military is the largest single consumer of energy and oil on the planet. Assistant Secretary Burke explained how the DoD is dealing with a different frame of war with distributed operations all over the globe, from disaster relief to deterrence, fighting terrorism to peacekeeping. The military has to move fuel through long supply lines and sometimes contested areas. “It’s a challenge for us,” she said.

Burke has noted that “a $1 rise in the price of a barrel of oil translates to approximately $130 million over the course of a year.” It’s not just money at stake: fuel resupply endangers the lives of the men and women in uniform. Delivering fuel via truck over dangerous roads has led to heavy-lift helicopters often being used to deliver fuel to bases in Afghanistan.

To cut inefficient use of, and therefore dependence on, fossil fuels in the combat theater, the military has been doing things like addingsolarpanels to tents and backpacks and sealing tents with an insulating coating so cooled air does not leak. Mortar pits can be powered by the sun instead of an idling Humvee. Radio towers are getting electricity from solar panels instead of a generator that drinks gasoline, requiring resupply. The DoD now dispatches energy teams to these forward-operating bases with deep policy knowledge of how renewable energy systems can be used, and they can work with soldiers on the ground to ascertain the best practical implementation. This leaves an experienced Chief Warrant Officer behind who can support the unit with these systems. As Ms. Burke said, it “doesn’t sound very exotic, but it adds up.”

This is about “mission capability,” she said, and “what energy innovation can bring to the mission.” Though some scoffed at the idea of solar panels at first, many grew to love the fact that they ran “without a hitch” and made no noise. Others loved the fact that flexible solar panels could recharge batteries, making it less necessary to carry the 18 pounds of batteries usually required to power things like night vision scopes. As with the rest of the solar industry, Burke said efficiency was the ultimate goal: “What we do, we do to meet military needs. [...] With those solar panels, we are very interested in getting higher and higher efficiencies.”

Renewable energy could allow the American military in combat zones to go farther, longer, and more quietly. Climate change was not a first or second reason given for the embrace of any of these renewable energy innovations, but they still have the ultimate effect of reducing CO2 emissions.

Electric vehicles on domestic military bases

Last month, the Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate hosted an event focused on efforts by the U.S. military to deploy clean energy technologies that enhance security and improve operational effectiveness.

The panelists all said that the impetus for these renewable energy efforts started with statutory requirements, including “specific Executive Orders” and legislation. The goal, however, reflected a different kind of sustainability: As Dr. Camron Gorguinpour put it, “Ultimately, we’re looking for things that make good financial sense.”

Dr. Gorguinpour is the Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Logistics. He detailed many of the reasons the DoD began a plug-in electric vehicle initiative two years ago. This concerns a non-tactical fleet of 200,000, meaning support cars and trucks on domestic bases. When looking at transitioning the fleet to efficient hybrid or electric vehicles, and installing charging stations, the DoD considered many options. There is currently a pilot program underway to try out all-electric vehicles on six bases in five different states.

Vehicle-to-grid resources also allow utilities to draw on and dump on a network of automotive batteries to help address frequency regulation, smoothing the minute-to-minute demand variations caused by thousands of consumers flipping switches on and off. When a network of electric vehicles provides this service, it earns valuable revenue. “How much value?” says Dr. Gorguinpour. “Kind of a lot.” Enough to earn far more each month than a monthly lease for an all-electric Nissan Leaf. This is important, because he said that cost concerns were the main priority with this program, with mission concerns a very close second.

The Army goes net zero energy

The Army’s “Net Zero Energy” initiative, which started in 2010, is not imposed on individual bases from the top down. One hundred installations responded that they wanted to be net-zero, and the Department of Defense selected seventeen for a nationwide pilot program. A site-specific assessment helps to tailor any changes to current processes, while ensuring that mission requirements are not compromised while reducing cost. Geothermal electric and solar PV can be expected to start coming on-line in 2014, along with heat pumps. As Director of the Army Sustainability Office Kristine Kingery put it: “One of the things we tried to do with our program was look at the endpoint, look at the goals. [...] But again, as with the other services, it’s got to be cost-effective.”

Captain Kerry Gilpin, the Director of the 1 Gigawatt Task Force and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Government, asked why the military was pursuing net-zero energy initiatives in the first place.

“The real reason we’re doing this is very simple. Secretary [of the Navy Ray] Mabus has set two priorities: energy security and energy independence. […] Basically, we don’t like having vulnerable supply lines…that are not difficult to disrupt. All threats, right? Natural disasters, manmade -- anything that could threaten our ability to do our critical missions presents a problem for us," said Captain Gilpin.

He said that military bases used to have their own traditional power plants in the middle of the twentieth century, and then switched to being dependent on the civilian grid. Now, with solar arrays, wind farms, and waste-to-energy generating turbines, “The pendulum is swinging the other way.”

Captain Gilpin also made the case that a smart microgrid would help integrate renewable energy into a full electric grid.

“That’s really where we’re going. It matters because…a lot of the things that cause the commercial grid to be unreliable are things that we can’t predict: natural disasters, man-made events. Thankfully, we haven’t had any of the latter, but certainly we’ve had many of the former, and they appear to be increasing in frequency and duration.”

Climate change

Former Senator John Warner said that when he was Secretary of the Navy, “We never gave a moment’s thought to the question of energy, and if anyone had said ‘Are you a Gigawatt Captain?’ he’d have been court-martialed.”

While some of those in the military do explicitly support directly addressing climate change through legislation, it wasn’t clear exactly how these experts considered climate change in the context of all their renewable energy efforts. During the Q&A, one brave soul asked the panel how climate change factors into the decisions they all were making. The responses were hesitant:

Captain Gilpin: “Speaking for the Department, as I must, that’s not really the main purpose we’re doing this. We do have greenhouse gas legislated goals that they certainly will help to attain. So in that regard, they’re absolutely a part of our planning and a part of our calculations on the projects we’re trying to develop. So, it’s legislated, it is important to us, it has meaning and merit. Still, I would say it’s not the primary reason for doing these projects.”

Dr. Gorguinpour: “I think part of the challenge with those types of challenges is it’s hard to quantify. So you’re trying to build a business case, an operational case, you can’t really put it in numbers when people compare one against another.”

Despite pushback from some members of Congress, many in the military are transitioning to renewable fuels that do not burn carbon dioxide. Although some aren’t doing it explicitly because of climate change, ultimately, the U.S. military will have to deal with climate migration, energy resource conflicts, and extreme weather disaster response.

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Ryan Koronowski is Deputy Editor of Climate Progress. This article is reposted in its original form from Climate Progress.