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September 15, 2011

The Military's Clean-Energy Mission

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, our country will be getting more than half of its power from energy that is safe, secure, and sustainable. We’re not there now, and in fact we have a long way to go in many sectors of the economy. But it’s clear to anyone who is paying attention that the countries that lead in the race to implement clean-energy technologies will be more resilient and more prosperous in the years ahead.

When I studied history in school, and in learning about successful social movements of the 20th century, I’ve always been fascinated with turning points. What was it that finally helped women’s suffragists to prevail? When was it clear that apartheid would certainly crumble? What will finally “bend the arc of history” to help our country end its dependence on dirty energy?

The U.S. military is likely to play a key role. More than just about any other U.S. organization –- public or private –- the U.S. Armed Forces are pushing the envelope when it comes to clean-energy technologies. That's thanks in part to the leadership of people like Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. His goals include cutting oil use by the Navy's commercial vehicles in half by 2015 and procuring half of its energy from alternative sources by 2020. But it's not just about goals. Results matter even more.

As a recent Sierra magazine article noted, "The Air Force and the Navy are taking the lead in developing biofuels for aircraft (vehicles, ships, and generators are next in line) from nonfood crops such as the camelina seed and algae." Ever wondered how we can get off oil and still fly jet airplanes? The military is already on it, with tough regulations that ban biofuel sources that would displace food crops. At the recent Blue Angels air show in Maryland, the jets were running on 50 percent biofuels.

And just last week, the Department of Energy announced that it was backing plans -- with a loan guarantee -- to put solar panels on as many as 160,000 military-housing rooftops. In the heat of the day, when air conditioners are on high, these solar arrays will collectively produce as much power as a small coal plant.

In August, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said, "We think we've made a great start," referring to the 126 existing Army-led renewable projects. "But to meet our longer-term objectives," he added, "we have to do better." Part of doing better means working with private businesses in the clean-tech industry -- and that means lots of good jobs for civilians.  

The Air Force isn't lagging either. The Los Angeles Air Force Base just announced that it will be "the first federal facility to replace 100 percent of its general purpose fleet with plug-in electric vehicles." Where will the electricity for those vehicles come from? The base already uses solar power, and it's expanding that infrastructure, too. So they're not just cutting out oil, they're also avoiding dirty energy from coal-fired power.

And in June, the Pentagon unveiled its comprehensive "Operational Energy Strategy," which includes plans to reduce the military's reliance on oil across the board.  The strategy is a giant step forward for an organization that can push Americans toward a clean-energy future.

Are you surprised that the military is taking the lead in adopting clean and renewable energy technologies? I'm not. The military operates in a world where relying on dogma rather than facts can result in casualties. As the Sierra article noted, being forced to rely on dirty, 19th-century fuels like oil puts our soldiers in danger -- and that's something no one wants.

This isn't the first time the military has been on the forefront of change. In 1948, President Truman's Executive Order 9981 paved the way for a desegregated military, six years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Now, as then, the military is basing decisions on common sense, not ideology. It's time for the rest of society to catch up.

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