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3 Reasons Why the Military Is Leading the Clean-Energy Charge

<p>As the U.S. government struggles to get the clean economy off the ground, the branches of the Armed Forces have proved more than capable of spearheading the movement.</p>

While the U.S. government attempts to get the clean energy economy off the ground, the military is quickly emerging as the silent hero leading the charge towards green.

In August, the U.S. military boldly declared that by 2025 it would get 25 percent of its power from renewable, and invest US$7.1 billion in an "Energy Initiatives" project over the next 10 years. This comes after the military has already launched several energy-focused projects aimed at reducing dependence on foreign oil by transitioning to solar energy, biofuels, and decentralized energy generation, such as the Army's Net Zero pilot program and the Navy's Great Green Fleet. Here are three reasons the U.S. military has what it takes to successfully spearhead the government's clean energy agenda:

1. The U.S. military's transition to renewable and clean energy is compelled by motives that go far beyond promises made on the campaign trail.

Consider these facts:

• The U.S. military is the single largest industrial consumer of oil in the world.
• The military pays over $400 per gallon of gas after accounting for transport and other expenditures.
• One member of our armed forces is killed for every 24 fuel convoys that set out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given these staggering statistics, the case for on-site energy generation and renewable energy sources is clear: new, independent energy sources can reduce vulnerability, increase operational flexibility, and enhance the security of our troops.

"We need to do security 21st century style -- our energy requirements aren't going away," says Mark Mykleby, retired colonel, U.S. Marine Corps. At its core, then, this is an operational imperative acknowledged by the DOD and DOE as critical to advancing the efforts of our soldiers while saving American lives on the battlefield, not about sustainability per se. With leaders from multiple sectors of government collaborating and considering how to make this work, the level of commitment is promising for success.

2. The U.S. military has huge buying power and an R&D budget to match.

The U.S. spent $80 billion on Defense R&D in 2010, which represented well over 50 percent of the federal government's total R&D expenditure. The military is therefore able to drive the development of new technologies at an incomparable pace, and indeed, has a history of spurring inventions that have paradigm-shifting peacetime applications: the internet, the microchip, and weather-forecasting, to name just a few. (See also the Israeli army.)

With its huge buying power, the military not only encourages innovation, but is able to stimulate the development of entire industries to supply its needs, and then in turn sustain these industries. This is incredibly promising for green technology, where one of the biggest barriers to scale has been financing and long-term investment.

Demand from a huge energy consumer like the military can easily streamline the supply process, lowering cost and scaling up production. As the government conscientiously sets aside federal dollars to build a clean economy by providing financing to renewable energy start-ups, the military has already unknowingly kick-started this process.

3. Even while national progress on energy policy stagnates in the midst of partisan debate, the military has the ability to make large, impactful and immediate investments in clean energy.

This is because the military's commitment to renewable energy adoption, though fiscally subject to congressional approval, is not dictated by the same political discourse that is hindering the creation of a national energy bill.

As a result, the military does not need to wait for the political debate to complete its course, and with its large purchasing power can confidently begin investing in a clean energy future now. In fact, the military's goals on energy are far more aggressive than what seems politically feasible in the civilian world in the near term and will likely stay that way for some time.

Pondering the difference between a hyped-up Solyndra-type financing venture and the U.S. military's stealthy success, we observe a lesson on how organizations -- governments or companies -- can successfully pursue their sustainability agendas.

The military is playing to its pre-established strengths, not adopting a newfangled scheme that doesn't match its history, culture, or competitive advantages. It looked inwards first to see what it could do with what it already had, and is now weaving sustainability into a broader security strategy rather than just adopting pet projects on the side.

Indeed, successful company sustainability strategies -- like that of Walmart, among many others -- also play to the organization's core strengths, and employ long-term investment models. So, what's your sweet spot?

Army gunner photo via Shutterstock.

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