Clean energy military engagement a positive action

Progressives have never been very good about admitting – let alone claiming – victory.

Ask your average progressive what he thinks of President Obama’s law expanding access to good health insurance in the United States and he’ll sigh and list the ways it falls short. 

Forget about finding silver linings on cloudy days; progressives habitually locate the clouds in what you thought was a peerless blue sky.

But please, people, don’t blow it with the military and its deeply green direction. Don’t let your disdain for the war machine get in the way of the massive effort under way by the U.S. Department of Defense to develop and deploy alternative energy technologies.

When it comes to energy policy, the military is a tree-hugger’s fantasy come true. The country as a whole doesn’t have a renewable energy standard, but the Pentagon does. It’s written into law, and it’s a thing of beauty.

From Section 2911 of Title 10 of the United States Code: “It shall be the goal of the Department of Defense … to produce or procure not less than 25 percent of the total quantity of facility energy it consumes within its facilities during fiscal year 2025 and each fiscal year thereafter from renewable energy sources.”

So while the nation relies on a sketchy patchwork of federal, state and local initiatives to move us uncertainly toward a safer, less expensive and more sustainable energy future – initiatives that are highly vulnerable to partisan attack – the military powers forward into a bold green tomorrow.

And this is deeply worrying to some progressives. 

A recent EarthTechling story about the Navy using biofuels to fly a newfangled drone aircraft brought the naysayers to the comments section (pasted verbatim):

“How can we look forward to world peace, we are spending time and money on finding ways to kill people more efficiently and in greater numbers,and in one shot…”

“Folks, don’t you find a bit of irony in this story? Here we have the  Navy proudly pronouncing that they are now using a ‘biofuel’ to presumably, reduce the emissions, and again – presumably to save lives.  The vehicle to use the biofuel is a vehicle to blow folks to smithereens! Amazing!…”

“Lord knows that when you send in an unmanned aerial war fighter which kills civilians indiscriminately, said aggressor should have the amount of Co2 emissions clearly at the lowest levels that technology can be attained…”

Earlier this year, we picked up a story about a Marine Corps regiment that was toting flexible solar panels to power their radios, and using solar tarps to light tents at night and a solar panel array to run more than 20 lighting systems and 15 computers at one time at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. 

Such uses, reports David Roberts in the December 2011 Outside, are focusing “attention on the tactical advantages of small-scale, distributed renewable energy.”

But more than that, Roberts writes, “the Marines’ efforts will drive R&D that could bring down prices for the kinds of technologies desperately needed in regions affected by war, poverty, or natural disasters.”

You got a problem with that?

The Pentagon’s commitment to biofuels is helping grow Solazyme, the South San Francisco-based startup that ferments algae to produce oil that can be refined into jet fuel, and Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels, which makes a drop-in fuel from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats.

Yes, these fuels are far too expensive to be competitive right now and I admit to being something of a skeptic about their long-term viability. But with a buyer in the military, these companies are being given a chance to grow, bring down prices and potentially penetrate the commercial aviation market. Witness the announcement by United that it intended to negotiate the purchase of 20 million gallons per year of Solazyme’s algae-based biofuel for delivery perhaps as soon as 2014.

The crazy truth is that while Karl Rove and Co. continue to flog Solyndra, chipping away at support for mainstream programs that back renewables, the military is merrily pouring money into a whole range of technologies – the Army alone expects to invest $7.1 billion into cleantech over the next decade, and a Pew study forecast that by 2030, the Defense Department altogether will be investing $10 billion annually into the sector.

Make no mistake, the military is pursuing alternatives and efficiencies because doing so makes the troops better, more secure fighters. As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said earlier this year, “For every 50 convoys of gasoline we bring in, we lose a Marine. We lose a Marine, killed or wounded. That is too high a price to pay for fuel.”

A good progressive might reply – correctly – that the best way to save Marines would be to get them the hell out of Afghanistan. And progressives are well advised to work to make that happen. Deriding the military for being green, however, isn’t going to accomplish that. Instead, it just might endanger a major opportunity to move the country beyond fossil fuels.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling