Why the Defense Department is Way Ahead of Congress on Clean Energy

Why the Defense Department is Way Ahead of Congress on Clean Energy

It should come as no surprise that fossil fuel companies are trying to discredit their biggest competitors: the clean energy industry. Together with their allies in Congress, they are trying to use the failure of one solar company to paint the entire renewable sector as a dangerous risk.

The people actually in charge of keeping this country safe, however, know the opposite is true.

The Department of Defense -- the nation's largest consumer of energy -- has pledged to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. The Navy and the Marine Corps are going even farther. They plan to reduce fossil energy use by 50 percent by 2020 and cut the petroleum used in their non-tactical fleet by 50 percent by 2015. The Air Forces plans to use alternative fuels for 50 percent of its domestic aviation needs by 2016.

The military made this commitment for pragmatic reasons. It knows the value of clean energy is found not only in its cost effectiveness but in its power to secure our nation and save lives.

According to a recent Washington Post article, for every 50 convoys of fuel brought into Afghanistan, one Marine is wounded or killed. And for every one-dollar rise in the cost of oil, another $30 million gets added to the Navy's energy costs.

Earlier this year Assistant Secretary of the Navy Jackalyne Pfannenstiel told NRDC's OnEarth Magazine that the Navy's investment in clean energy is about security and supply.

Navy Secretary Mabus recognized very early on the strategic importance of energy and our dependence on it from a military point of view -- and so much of it is imported. Our job is to defend the country. So how do we reduce the risk that's involved in importing so much of this critical resource? We also use a huge amount of energy in theater, in military operations. And that makes us vulnerable, both in terms of cost and in the risk to fuel convoys. So getting ourselves off imported energy is both a tactical and a strategic priority.

The Army, meanwhile, has set an ambitious goal of achieving "zero net energy consumption" by 2030. This means a building or installation produced as much energy as it consumes. "The goal is net-zero: net-zero energy, net-zero water, and net-zero waste," said Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy, and the environment. In April, the Army launched a net-zero-energy pilot program at six Army facilities, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

More efficient vehicles, homegrown biofuels, and renewable energy are helping the military meet these goals. And in the meantime, it is providing a market for American innovators.

The Washington Post article quoted Nicole Lederer, a co-founder of NRDC's sister organization Environmental Entrepreneurs -- a group of 850 companies that advocate for smart environmental policies. Many of E2's members are in the clean energy sector, and they have welcomed the chance to partner with the Pentagon, especially after Congress failed to pass comprehensive clean energy legislation. Lederer said, "When one door closed, a big window opened with the Department of Defense."

Back in the spring, I attended a conference celebrating E2's 10th anniversary, and I remember hearing Jerry Fiddler, the chairman of Solazyme, talk about the fuel his company produced from algae. Solazyme was delivering more than 100,000 gallons of ship diesel and jet fuel to the Navy, and Fiddler said the military made a great customer for a clean energy start-up because it's a large, knowledgeable, and demanding technological partner. Satisfying the Navy's needs, he said, has helped him commercialize his innovative product.

NRDC is also partnering with the Department of Defense to help expedite the siting process for renewable energy projects near DOD facilities and ensure that both environmental and military considerations are taken into account. We are also working to expand the use of certified sustainable biofuels as an alternative to petroleum and promote energy efficiency and sustainability goals at DOD facilities.

These projects and all the DOD's clean energy programs provide something that Congress has failed to offer: a clear, long-range market signal for clean energy investment. Secretary Mabus said, "The thing I want to attack the most is [that] this is some sort of far or flavor of the moment."

Instead, clean energy is the future, and the Pentagon is starting to build it right now.

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This article originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard Blog, and is reprinted with permission.

Photo, from the German Defense Forces, CC-licensed by funky1opti.