Amid Political Backlash, Pentagon Pushes Forward With Green Energy

By Sandra I. Erwin
Maybe the problem with the Defense Department’s renewable energy efforts is that they are called “green.”

And anything green these days can be radioactive on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers see funding requests for Defense Department clean-energy programs and cringe. Here we go again, another Solyndra, more ethanol subsidies, more government waste, more taxpayer dollars thrown at political cronies.

Military and civilian defense officials responsible for green initiatives increasingly are flummoxed and frustrated by the demonization of renewable energy. When did efforts to save lives and money become cheap partisan fodder?

“I think it’s sad” that the military’s campaign to burn less fuel and to secure alternative sources of energy is being politicized, one three-star general said in a private conversation.

Several industry insiders who work with the Pentagon’s most visible champion for green energy, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, said they were aghast at the amount of badgering he received last month during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. By their account, Mabus was quite upset by the grilling from several congressmen, who insinuated that the secretary was being too aggressive in promoting the Navy’s green fleet at the expense of more urgent force-readiness priorities.

“Now, look, I love green energy,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va. But he questioned why the Navy is cutting its budget for ships but increasing spending on biofuels that cost $15 per gallon. “You’re not the secretary of energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy,” Forbes griped. Mabus was hit by similar unfriendly barbs from other HASC members.

In fairness to green-energy critics, the terms of the debate over Pentagon investments in this area have been tough to frame because the goals are so wide-ranging. On one end of the spectrum are Navy and Air Force initiatives to replace fossil fuels with renewables, with the goal of boosting “energy security” — a catchphrase for becoming less dependent on oil imports from unfriendly countries. On the other end are Defense Department green initiatives that have practical tactical aims, such as reducing fuel shipments in combat zones. Supply convoys in Afghanistan and Pakistan are regularly attacked and U.S troops and contractors have been killed and wounded.

One Pentagon contractor who produces renewable energy systems said he was appalled by the prosecutorial nature of congressional inquiries on green programs. “When you know people who have gotten killed transporting or guarding fossil fuel, it sort of points you in the right direction,” he lamented.

The war in Afghanistan may be winding down, but there are still more than 400 forward-operating bases throughout the country where U.S. troops are deployed. The Army, particularly, is rushing to provide more efficient generators that could cut fuel demand by half.

The Army’s chief of logistics Lt. Gen. Raymond Mason said the service is requesting $4 billion in the 2013-2017 budget for “operational energy” programs. “I have to convince the leadership that they have to spend money to save money and lives,” Mason told reporters. “The issue is not whether we can afford operational energy, we cannot afford not to do it.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently signed an “operational energy implementation plan” that could spur additional efficiency measures and more investments in clean-energy programs beyond what is currently under way. With congressional approval last year, the Pentagon set up an “operational energy capabilities improvement fund” that would provide seed money for technologies that reduce battlefield fuel use. It received $18 million in fiscal year 2012 for five projects that were selected among 32 competitors.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs Sharon Burke said that in this initial round of projects, the focus was on energy-saving cooling and heating systems for military outposts. Burke recently spoke to an industry conference where nearly 700 small-business representatives came to hear about future opportunities in the operational energy market. She told the audience that the OECIF money is not intended to bankroll “one off” science projects but rather to develop “long-term capabilities that will be sustained by the military services” so they can cut down on fuel use for years to come.

Lt. Gen. William N. Phillips, the Army’s head of acquisitions, said there is an urgent need for fuel savings. Each FOB in Afghanistan requires 250 to 7,500 gallons of fuel per day depending on the size. Larger bases demand up to 50,000 gallons per day. Overall the U.S. military consumes 50 million gallons per month in Afghanistan.

Looking ahead, even after the current wars end, the Pentagon sees a compelling need to wean itself from petroleum. “There is no question that the military will need alternatives to petroleum, particularly for our legacy fleet of ships and planes,” Burke said in an email. “Recent oil market volatility also emphasizes the need for these longer term solutions.” The Defense Department estimates that for every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, its fuel bill goes up by $130 million.

The Navy’s director of the energy coordination office, Cmdr. James Goudreau, pushed back on the Republican HASC members’ criticism of military investments in renewables. “Alternative fuels for the Navy is not about being green, it’s about combat capability,” he said. “Our job is not to save the world, it is to protect the nation.”

One Republican who stands with the Pentagon on this issue is now-retired Virginia Sen. John Warner, a former secretary of the Navy and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. During a panel discussion at the American Security Project, Warner warned Goudreau that Congress, being the political animal that it is, should not be trusted to rise above the fray, even when energy security is at stake. “The problem as I see it is in the puzzle palace,” Warner said. The Defense Department has laudable goals, he posited, “But is Congress going to help you? That is the real question.”

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy

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