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Military embraces green energy, for national security reasons

A Mojave Desert Army base is full of plug-in cars, solar panels and new experiments. Liberal agenda? Nah, it's about saving money, even lives. But the Defense Department could cement a national trend.

April 26, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

FT. IRWIN, CALIF. — Inside a futuristic-looking dome that rises from the sandy wasteland of the high Mojave Desert, soldiers in plywood cubicles work at computers powered by solar panels and a towering wind turbine.

Plug-in cars shuttle the troops across the vast expanses here at Ft. Irwin in San Bernardino County. At night, tents lined with insulating foam provide a cool retreat at the end of a 100-degree day.

The desert base, which houses the Army's premier training center for troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, has become a testing ground and showcase for green initiatives that officials estimate could save the services millions, trim their heavy environmental "boot-print" and even save lives in the war zones, where fuel convoys are frequent targets.

The Department of Defense is the single largest energy consumer in the United States. Last year it bought nearly 4 billion gallons of jet fuel, 220 million gallons of diesel and 73 million gallons of gasoline, said Brian Lally, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.

American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are using more fuel each day than in any other war in U.S. history. When oil prices spiked last summer, the Defense Department's energy tab shot up from about $13 billion per year in 2006 and 2007 to $20 billion in 2008. The Army alone had to make up a half- billion-dollar shortfall in its energy budget, said Keith Eastin, assistant secretary of the Army for installations and environment.

"That was, I think, a grand wake-up call that we somehow had to get a handle on what is loosely called energy security," Eastin said.

Defense officials now consider reducing consumption and embracing energy alternatives to be national security imperatives. At Ft. Irwin, commanders are experimenting with ways to power the desert training area -- which replicates austere combat conditions -- using wind, solar and organic waste-to-fuel technologies.

When Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard took command of Ft. Irwin in 2007, he was stunned by the cost of housing troops in tents powered by generators, as they often are in Iraq and Afghanistan. A brigade of about 4,000 to 5,000 troops was spending about $3 million to rent the tents and keep the air conditioners humming during a month-long rotation, Pittard said. By building tents covered with two to three inches of insulating foam and a solar- reflective coating, they reduced the generator requirements by 45% to 75%, a technique that is now being used at some larger bases in the war zones.

Estimates are that a $22-million investment to replace all the rented tents at Ft. Irwin with insulated, semi-permanent ones would pay for itself within nine months and could save the Army $100 million over five years, said Eric Gardner, a logistics management specialist at the base.

By reducing generator use, Ft. Irwin also expects to cut carbon emissions by 35 million pounds each year -- equivalent to taking 3,500 vehicles off the road, Gardner said. This year, for the first time, the facility did not need a waiver allowing it to exceed the state of California's emissions standards in the training area, Pittard said.

Some kinks still have to be worked out as the base increases its use of alternative energy. Although there is plenty of sunshine in the desert to keep solar systems running through the day, the military needs ways to store that energy for nighttime use. And although there is plenty of wind, the Air Force has expressed concern that turbines could interfere with its radar systems.

Even so, Pittard, who left Ft. Irwin in March to become deputy chief of staff of the Training and Doctrine Command Headquarters at Ft. Monroe in Virginia, is convinced that within five years it will be possible to take Ft. Irwin off the electric grid. The nearby Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, also in the Mojave Desert, already is powered completely by geothermal energy generated by hot water below the surface.

Producers and advocates of green technology are taking note. The Defense Department derives 9.8% of its power from alternative sources and is looking to expand use of wind, solar, thermal and nuclear energy. Some believe that the military has the potential to become a catalyst, helping to turn more expensive power sources into financially viable alternatives to coal and petroleum.

"If the military were to go green, I think that this really could achieve some environmental goals, for a very simple reason: the military is so big," said Matthew Kahn, an environmental economist at the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

Although that remains to be seen, Kahn noted that it would not be the first time the military has had a transforming effect on technology. Cellphones, the Global Positioning System and the Internet all have roots in the military.

Some in the green energy sector hope that as the military adopts alternative power sources, the technology will gain broader acceptance among political conservatives.

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