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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fighting a Renewable Army

Air Date: Week of
The USS George Washington in formation in the Caribbean Sea. A Carrier Strike Group like this one will test advanced biofuels off Hawaii this summer. The biofuels cost four times as much the traditional petroleum based fuel. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The Defense Department wants to run the military on more renewables and less oil, but some members of Congress don’t think it’s worth one billion dollars. House Republicans complain that the Department of Defense is advancing a political agenda instead of a military one. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports on the battle over clean energy.


GELLERMAN: The United States Department of Defense is the largest single consumer of energy in the nation. In fact, it consumes more oil than anybody else in the world.
To cut the use of fossil fuels, the military’s top brass has pledged to get 25 percent of the Pentagon’s energy from renewable sources by 2025.

But now that target has come under attack by Congressional Republicans. And they’ve set their sights on the U.S. Navy, which has the Defense Department’s most ambitious energy goals. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.


SRISKANDARAJAH: The Navy first got its cutting edge fighter jet in 1980.

[VIDEO CLIP: You want a buzzing insect that can sting your enemy before he knows what has happened. That’s what the Navy asked for and that is what they got: the F/A-18 Hornet.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: The Hornet became the Navy’s most famous jet – it’s what the Navy’s Blue Angels fly at airshows. Thirty years later, in 2010, the iconic fighter got an overhaul, with a shot of plant fuel. They called the biodisel burning jet: the Green Hornet.

Navy Secretary Mabus introduces the Blue Angels. The Navy flight team performs stunts and test out their new 50-50 mix of jet fuel and JP-5 aviation fuel. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Sam Shavers)

[VIDEO CLIP: Here’s your Pentagon channel report. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus watched the Green Hornet test flight. He says the Navy is committed to reducing dependence on foreign oil and safeguarding the environment.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has charted a path for the Navy and Marine Corps to get half of their energy from biofuels and renewables by 2020. Politicians who disagree on most national energy policy issues found common ground here. But in an election year, with a tough economy, the Navy’s goal has become another target for Republicans in the House Armed Services Committee. Here’s an exchange between Representative Mike Conaway of Texas and Secretary Mabus at a recent budget hearing.

CONAWAY: Now, if you get to 2020 and you’ve got to this holy grail of a 50/50 blend across your team, that means you’ll be a third more expensive for fuel than the other services.

SECRETARY MABUS: Sir, I think your premise is absolutely wrong.

A T-45C Goshawk training aircraft conducts a test flight using a biofuel blend. (U.S. Navy photo by Kelly Schindler, Aug. 24, 2011)

CONAWAY: I disagree with that.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Besides the Green Hornet, the Navy has test-flown two other planes on jet fuel cut with plant fuel. The service is also planning to run battleships on half a million gallons of advanced biofuel that cost 12 million dollars, as Secretary Mabus told Congressman Conaway.

MABUS: Actually sir, the additional cost there is so tiny compared to the additional cost of…

CONAWAY: Only in the Department of Defense budget…there’s not another budget on the face of the Earth where $600 million of new money would be considered tiny.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The Department Of Defense is asking for $525 billion. One billion of that is for “energy conservation investments.” That’s two and a half times more than was allocated in 2010.

RORKE: And with a budget increase that extreme, there’s a lot of room to get it wrong.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Catrina Rorke is the director of energy policy at the American Action Forum, a center right D.C. think tank. Rorke attributes the spike to President Obama’s larger energy agenda.

RORKE: The Department of Defense is not insulated from the politically motivated budget decisions that happen elsewhere in government

SRISKANDARAJAH: Rorke isn’t opposed to investment in renewable energy but she says she has a hard time justifying the additional costs, especially when military has to trim elsewhere.

RORKE: Five point one billion in cuts, along with a 600 million increase in renewable energy, seems to really demonstrate that the Pentagon is driving on renewable energy and energy efficiency investments as a new priority that we’re unfamiliar with.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The priority isn’t that new. In 2005, President George W. Bush first required the military to invest in renewable and alternatives under the Energy Policy Act. Within a year, the military became the nation’s biggest buyer of renewable energy.
In the current administration, for Deputy Assistant Secretary of Navy for Energy, Tom Hicks, it’s not about party.

HICKS: My view is when folks become more aware of the progress we’ve made, the real goals of what we’re driving towards, I think it’s a story that works on both sides of the aisle. I really do.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That progress is already being seen with solar panels and smarter batteries in combat today.

HICKS: And not just any part of the theatre but the heaviest part of the fight in the Sangin province in Afghanistan, and what they were able to do was to take out 25-90 percent of the energy in the fort operating base environment. I think one company was able to reduce 700 pounds of batteries that they would’ve brought on their patrols. That to me is the essence of what we’re trying to get at.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The military translates energy conserved into lives saved. In Afghanistan, convoys transport energy more than anything else. For every 50 convoys, one Marine is killed or wounded. In the coming months, Congress will decide if energy conservation is the best way to spend one billion dollars.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.



Testing biofuels in the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet”

The White House budget proposal for defense spending

Rorke’s article: Obama Turns to Pentagon to Finance Green Energy:


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