Clean-Tech’s Unlikely Champion

Is the Pentagon setting the pace for renewable energy?

Solazyme Inc.

A Riverine Command Boat running on a 50/50 blend of algae-based and traditional fuel.

Thirty years ago, the idea of a military-alternative energy partnership might have raised some eyebrows, particularly among solar entrepreneurs here in Northern California. But in the wake of Solyndra’s crash and burn, the Pentagon has become one of clean-tech’s strongest remaining allies in Washington. Leading the charge is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, whom I interviewed last week for my radio report on KQED’s Quest.

According to a recent study from the Pew Charitable Trust, the military has tripled its investment in technologies like biofuels, solar panels, and electric vehicles over the last four years. Today, it spends $1.2 billion a year on alternative fuels. That amount is expected to reach $2.25 billion by 2015. Mabus says he wants to see the Navy and Marine Corps getting at least half of their fuel from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.

Right now, clean tech needs all the champions it can get. Last week, Solar City announced it’ll miss out on $275 million in federal loans from the Department of Energy, thanks to the “Solyndra effect.” Some conservative lawmakers have questioned whether the US Government should be investing in alternative energy at all. But Mabus says he’s standing firm on his commitment to clean tech.

How did the US Military become interested in alternative energy?

If you’re a military organization, you look at potential or actual adversaries’ vulnerabilities, and you try to see where they’re vulnerable.You’d better do the same thing for yourself. So we looked at vulnerabilities for the Navy and the Marine Corps, and one of the ones that rose right to the top was our dependence on fossil fuels.

There are several reasons for that. One is that we buy too many fossil fuels from actually or potentially volatile places on Earth. Two is the that worldwide market for fossil fuels is incredibly volatile and vulnerable to price shocks. In the last two years, the price of oil has gone from a low of $72 a barrel to a high of $116, and today it’s at $105. Every time the price of oil goes up a dollar a barrel, it costs the Navy $31 million [per year] in extra fuel costs.

Every time the price of oil goes up a dollar a barrel, it costs the Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs.

So we’ve had over a billion dollars in additional fuel costs in the last two years. The only place we have to get that is from our readiness account. So fewer flying hours, less training. And we’ve got to find a way to dampen down those sorts of price shocks.

And finally, tactically, if you think about getting a gallon of gas to a marine front-line unit in Afghanistan, it’s incredibly hard and very expensive, both in terms of dollars, but also in terms of lives. For every 50 convoys of gasoline or water – those are the two things we import most into Afghanistan – we lose a marine, either killed or wounded. And that’s too expensive.

It also keeps marines who are guarding these convoys from doing what they’re supposed to do, what they were sent there to do, which is fight, engage, rebuild. So from a big-picture standpoint, there were lots of very compelling reasons why we need to move off fossil fuels to the maximum extent that we can.

I want to ask about Section 526 – the President George W. Bush-era provision that prohibits the federal government — including the military — from buying fuel with a carbon footprint any greater than traditional oil resources. There have been calls from conservative lawmakers to remove the provision. Where do you stand on that?

I think 526 is good law, requiring that any fuels or energy that the military buys be equal to or less in terms of carbon emissions. That’s a good thing to have happen, to lower carbon emissions, greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not the main reason we’re doing this. It’s a side effect. The main reason we’re doing this is because it makes us better war fighters.

But having said that, [the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions] is a good side effect. And I think it’s a worthwhile goal.

If 526 were eliminated, wouldn’t the military have a harder time justifying its clean-tech investments? After all, you’d have a domestic, North American source of fossil fuel energy from the tar sands, for example, that you could be taking advantage of.

Well the short answer is I don’t think it would be a harder case to make.

Primarily because whether we even could get all the fossil fuels [we need] from the US and domestically — that’s an iffy proposition. But even if we could, the prices for fossil fuels are set on a worldwide basis. They’re not just set in the United States.

The biggest price shock we’ve had was during the events in Libya, which is a big oil producer, but not the biggest one. The disruption in Libya caused the price of oil worldwide to go up almost $30 a barrel. And so you would still be very susceptible to these price shocks, even if you were getting all your fossil fuel energy from domestically-produced sources.

In the wake of Solyndra, the Department of Energy has been heavily criticized for its investments in clean-tech. What’s different in the way the Department of Defense approaches these decisions? And are you at all concerned that some of that political heat might start focusing on the military?

We’re doing this to become a better military, to make us better war fighters. We’re doing this as a matter of security –of energy security and national security.
Well, number one, I’m going to be a broken record here. We’re doing this to become a better military, to make us better war fighters. We’re doing this as a matter of security; of energy security and national security. The fundamental purpose of our doing this is so that we will be better at the mission that the US has given us.

Secondly, and I’ll speak in terms of this biofuels initiative that the president has passed. We’re doing this in a very deliberate way. We’re doing this in conjunction with a lot of participation by industry. It’s a very competitive process. There’s going to be a long period where we do a lot of due diligence, where we require industry to put up at least dollar-for-dollar, matching us. So [private investors’] money is going to be at least as much and probably more in the game than ours. That’s been our charge and that’s been the way we’re approaching this.

To learn more about the US military’s investments in clean tech, listen to Amy’s Quest radio story:

  • Joe Inu

    Why is this article title, “Clean-Tech’s Unlikely Champion” ? The DOD and DARPA have been on the forefront many innovations that we use today: the internet, GPS, and radar, just to name a few. I think the whoever wrote the title needs to look a little deeper at the research benefits that the military has provided.

    • Craig Miller

      It’s a fair point, Joe. We’re aware of the innovations you noted and in fact they are mentioned in Amy’s radio story (embedded in the post). That acknowledgment just didn’t make it into the shorter blog version. I think the headline simply reflects the likelihood that the military sector isn’t necessarily the first place that most people would look to for advances in renewable energy.

  • Anonme

    Right.

    However, we the people pay the military salary. Why don’t WE get the benefit too – or is it only for the “correct” pre-approved groups?

    I read during the criminal Cheney/Bush rein that BushCo ONLY ate organic food at the white house – his “ranch” in TX was entirely off grid, including grey water. There were several tours of same that were surprisingly not advertised too broadly.

    So… again – Military gets solar while public gets 0.
    Rich can afford organic – but VOTE AGAINST (as BushCo did many times) – organic for the little people.

    Times are changing… thank goodness.

    More people powered democracy please – the corporate owned BS is killing us all!