Military is leading the green revolution
Friday, December 24, 2010 02:51 AM
The thing I love most about America is that there’s always somebody here who doesn’t get the word — and they go out and do the right thing or invent the new thing, no matter what’s going on politically or economically. And what could save America’s energy future — at a time when a fraudulent, anti-science campaign funded largely by Big Oil and Big Coal has blocked Congress from passing any clean energy/climate bill — is the fact that the Navy and Marine Corps just didn’t get the word.
Spearheaded by Ray Mabus, President Barack Obama’s secretary of the Navy and the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the Navy and Marines are building a strategy for “out-greening” al-Qaida, “out-greening” the Taliban and “out-greening” the world’s petro-dictators. Their efforts are based in part on a recent study from 2007 data that found that the U.S. military loses one person, killed or wounded, for every 24 fuel convoys it runs in Afghanistan. Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of these convoys needed to truck fuel — to run air-conditioners and power diesel generators — to remote bases all over Afghanistan.
Mabus’ argument is that if the U.S. Navy and Marines could replace those generators with renewable power and more energy-efficient buildings, and run its ships on nuclear energy, biofuels and hybrid engines, and fly its jets with biofuels, then it could out-green the Taliban — the best way to avoid a roadside bomb is to not have vehicles on the roads — and out-green all the petro-dictators now telling the world what to do.
Unlike Congress, which can be bought off by Big Oil and Big Coal, it is not so easy to tell the Marines that they can’t buy the solar power that could save lives. I don’t know what the final outcome in Iraq or Afghanistan will be, but if we come out of these two wars with a Pentagon-led green revolution, I know they won’t be a total loss.
Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, the assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, used to lead the California Energy Commission. She listed for me what’s going on:
On April 22, Earth Day, the Navy flew a F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet powered by a 50-50 blend of conventional jet fuel and camelina aviation biofuel made from pressed mustard seeds. It flew at Mach 1.2 and has since been tested on biofuels at Mach 1.7 — without a hiccup.
The Navy will use only “third generation” biofuels. That means no ethanol made from corn because it doesn’t have enough energy density. The Navy is testing only fuels like camelina and algae that do not compete with food, that have a total end-to-end carbon footprint cleaner than fossil fuels and that can be grown in ways that will ultimately be cheaper than fossil fuels. In October, the Navy launched the USS Makin Island amphibious assault ship, which is propelled by a hybrid gas turbine/electric motor. On its maiden voyage from Mississippi to San Diego, said Mabus, it saved $2 million in fuel.
In addition, the Navy has tested its RCB-X combat boat on a 50-50 blend of algae and diesel, and it has tested its SH-60 helicopter on a similar biofuel blend. Meanwhile, the Marines now have a “green” forward operating base set up in Helmand Province in Afghanistan that is testing everything from LED lights in tents to solar canopies to power refrigerators and equipment in the field to see just how efficiently one remote base can get by without fossil fuel.
When you factor in all the costs of transporting fuel by truck or air to a forward base in Afghanistan — that is, guarding it and delivering it over mountains — a single gallon of gasoline “could cost up to $400” once it finally arrives, Mabus said.
The Navy plans in 2012 to put out to sea a “Great Green Fleet,” a 13-ship carrier battle group powered either by nuclear energy or 50-50 blends of biofuels and with aircraft flying on 50-50 blends of biofuels.
Mabus also has set a goal for the Navy to use alternative energy sources to provide 50 percent of the energy for all its war-fighting ships, planes, vehicles and shore installations by 2020. If the Navy really uses its buying power when buying power, and setting building efficiency standards, it alone could expand the green energy market in a decisive way.
And, if Congress will simply refrain from forcing the Navy to use corn ethanol or liquid coal — neither of which are clean or efficient, but are located in many congressional districts — we might really get a green revolution in the military. That could save lives, money and the planet, and might even help us win — or avoid — the next war. Go Navy!
Thomas L. Friedman writes for The New York Times.