In a recent New York Times article, Thomas Friedman brought up the U.S. military’s current push to become energy independent as a national security measure. According to Friedman, the “Navy and Marines are building a strategy for ‘out-greening’ Al Quaeda…and the world’s petro-dictators.” This strategy apparently evolved out of a study showing that one person dies for every 24 of the hundreds of fuel convoys run through Afghanistan. One calculation of the cost of transporting fuel to forward bases puts it at up to $400 per gallon delivered. According to an earlier article, fossil fuel is the single largest product the military imports to Afghanistan.
While the idea of a sustainable military complex may seem contradictory, the U.S. Armed Forces seem to be pushing the envelope of energy efficiency, doing so from an objective evaluation of the cost/benefit relationship of maintaining the status quo of high fossil fuel use. Recent military experiments include testing fighter jets, boats, and helicopters on 50% biofuels; hybrid gas turbine/electric amphibious assault ships; and LED lights and solar collectors on field tents. In a test run of one ship, an estimated 900,000 gallons of fuel were saved on a single trip. In addition, the Navy will only use “third-generation” biofuels, specifically those that don’t compete with the food supply and have a lower total carbon footprint than fossil fuels. This eliminates consideration of corn ethanol and leads them to use camelina- and algae-based fuels.
Avoiding the politics
Interestingly, Friedman makes the point that the military is able to sidestep many of the politically charged fights led by representatives from corn-producing states that require the use of corn ethanol, and subsidies and tax benefits that go to petroleum producers. The military apparently has the freedom to make their own decisions on fuel sources—unless, of course, Congress decides to force them to use more corn ethanol, petroleum, and coal products.
Let’s hope that they are left to make their own decisions in this arena, and they come up with new fuels and technologies that will ultimately make their way to the marketplace. This has happened before with little things like the Internet and global positioning systems (GPS), which now offer wide-ranging benefits for everyone. Here’s to hoping that our military will continue to lead the way in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Assuming that history is the best predictor, we should see some big benefits coming out of these efforts.