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Military Continues to Move Forward on Clean Energy

Peter Lehner's picture

I am the Executive Director of NRDC. The position is my second at NRDC. Beginning in 1994, I led the Clean Water Program for five years, before leaving in 1999 to serve as the head of the...

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  • Dec 3, 2013

Military Energy Investment

Speaking at a conference on international security last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said: “Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters — all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world.”

In other words, climate change, in addition to the toll it takes on our health and the economy, also poses risks to national security. The Department of Defense has been addressing the military challenges posed by climate change for more than a decade. In recent years, the DOD has embraced a strategy that will improve energy efficiency in the military, explore and develop new energy technologies, and expand the use of renewable energy on bases and in the field. The Navy and Air Force are aiming to get half their energy from alternative sources by 2020.  The Marines have set a goal to be 50 percent more fuel-efficient in the battlefield by 2025. The Army’s goal is to use 25 percent renewable energy by 2015. The military’s direction is clear: a focus on clean energy and efficiency makes for a more nimble, effective fighting force. Secretary Hagel’s speech signals his commitment to continue on this track, and reinforces the essential role clean energy plays in achieving our national security goals, while reaping benefits for the economy and our environment.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, one of five Army bases seeking to achieve net-zero energy use, recently issued a draft plan to improve energy efficiency and generate renewable energy on site. NRDC has been helping advise academy faculty and personnel on clean energy for the past two years. Options under consideration at West Point include installing solar panels on the field house roof (without covering up slogans that say “SINK NAVY!” and “BEAT AIR FORCE!”), solar hot water, geothermal heat pumps, and combined heat and power systems that provide electricity, heating and cooling efficiently. West Point already has two small solar installations and a wind turbine. The draft plan represents a major push forward. The plan’s authors write, “…addressing energy security and sustainability is operationally necessary, financially prudent and essential to mission accomplishment.”

Renewable energy has already taken root throughout the military. North America’s largest solar photovoltaic power plant is at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Solar panels at Fort Dix in New Jersey are saving the Army $160,000 each year in energy costs. Fort Bliss, in Texas, which has been using solar power for years, is set to break ground on a new 20-megawatt solar farm—the largest renewable energy project in military history.

Renewable energy installations on military-controlled lands are expected to generate 3,000 megawatts of energy by 2025. That’s 50 percent more energy than the Hoover Dam, and enough to power 750,000 homes. To help ensure that the push to develop renewable energy moves forward smoothly, NRDC and the DOD just released a primer for renewable energy developers. Large-scale renewable energy projects are often sited on or near land used by the military for training and testing. These same lands often hold immense environmental value as well, supporting critical natural resources and rare and threatened wildlife. For a renewable energy project to get off the ground successfully, military and environmental concerns need to be considered up front. The primer provides guidance for developers on how to screen wind and solar projects for potential conflicts. In order to scale up the renewable energy we all want and need, these projects need to be smart from the start.

The DOD is already seeing positive results from its clean energy shift. In Afghanistan last year, energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, including the use of solar energy at combat outposts, saved roughly 20 million gallons of fuel. Improving energy efficiency and using renewable energy in military operations not only saves money—it also saves lives. The Army estimates that 170 soldiers died protecting fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 alone.

The DOD’s work to scale up its use of clean, renewable energy use has impacts that ripple beyond the military theater. As the nation’s largest purchaser of energy, the DOD has the potential to drive changes in the clean energy market. By increasing demand for clean, renewable energy in order to meet its goals of military readiness and protecting national security, the DOD can help boost the expansion of clean energy in the private sector as well. And the cleaner our energy system gets, the more we reduce the risks we all face from climate change.

Photo Credit: Military Clean Energy/shutterstock

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 6, 2013

Great points Cliff.  

It is important to remember that due to the buracracy and competition-inhibitting single-payers system, everything costs more when purchased by the military.  So we should not try to use the military to advance new technolgy, except in cases where there is no commercial alternative (i.e. replacing commercial electricity or wholesale fuel is the last thing the military should do; battle-field point of use fuel is of course different).

On the other hand, the US military does have the ability to bypass burdensome civilian nuclear regulations.  So there is some hope that the military could act as early-adopters and help restore innovation and entrepreneurial spririt to the nuclear industry.    Some of the new and proposed small nuclear reactors would be good additions to foreign military bases (e.g. walk-away safe underground TRISO-fueled reactors), and could help provide clean electricity to host communities. 

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Dec 3, 2013

I served as a requirements officer in the branch of the OPNAV (Chief of Naval Operations) staff – N4 – that deals with energy and fuel issues. I would be much more impressed by the DoD programs to mitigate climate change if the leadership would have opened their eyes to see that the US Navy already contained one of the world’s formost nuclear energy organizations and owned technology that has been proven to provide battle capable power without producing any emissions at all. 

As we learned when the USS Nautilus first went to sea in January 1955, nuclear fission energy is both clean enough to run inside a sealed submarine and powerful enough to drive that submarine at unmatched speeds. The first Nautilus core propelled the ship more than 62,000 miles; the most recent cores being installed in Virginia class submarines will last the life of the ship – perhaps 1,000,000 miles.

The reception I got when pushing an expanded nuclear energy program was discouragement from the politically appointed leaders in uniform. I kept showing them the numbers; they kept saying that nuclear was not popular. During the huge run up in oil prices prior to 2008, my efforts started to gain some traction, but short memories took over once the prices fell during the recession.

Many of the budget types informed me that it was always easier to get Congress to approve a supplemental budget request if fuel prices skyrocketed than to get them to approve ships that cost 20-30% more. They said that future fuel costs disappear in their spreadsheets – I kept pointing out the dishonesty and the lack of historical understanding.

Eventually I retired without having made as much of an impact as I desired, but the truth remains that nuclear energy works. It is zero emission and it provides reliable power on demand. It is the right choice for an organization that already knows how to build some of the best power plants in the world.

I’ve provided this response because I am quite aware of the fact that the NRDC discourages the use of nuclear energy. I recently had a lengthy conversation with Tom Cochran, who has now retired from your organization; he was insistent that, somehow, the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion program contributed to the risk of nuclear proliferation. That makes no sense at all considering the measures taken to provide security to all military systems. 

One more thing – the cost of military nuclear power plants is higher than it should be, but that is mostly due to the very low production rate environment of today. The recent cost reduction program for the USS Virginia demonstrates how production rates can make a big impact on system costs.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

CDR, USN (ret)

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Dec 4, 2013

Very interesting, Rod Adams.

I was wondering why there was no mention of nuclear propulsion in the above article. Presumably, if zero-emissions energy is what constitutes clean energy, one would expect at least a passing mention of navy nuclear propulsion systems! But that would clearly be a wrong expectation. Thankfully, you have lacking information.

On the subject of navy propulsion, I have been wondering how solar power plants are ever going to provide power for the propulsion ofmilitary ships, aircraft and vehicles. Presumably, this is where most of the military demand for energy is coming from. Some time ago I was reading about research performed by the US Navy for providing nuclear power derived fully synthetic liquid fuel based on sea-water extraction of co2 and hydrogen. The concept was to use the nuclear power plants of aircraft carriers to run the (mostly off-the-shelf) fuel synthesis equipment to provide on-site production of drop-in replacement jet fuel! It seemed like a wonderfull idea, also for civilian applications, and the projected economics didn’t look half bad either! Yet no mention of this development in this article from the NRDC. Pity!


Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Dec 4, 2013

The US Air Force is the number one consumer of petroleum products in the world.

All the literature I have read indicates that they expect hydrocarbons to be the primary fuel for the forseeable future, but they are open to clean fuels and synthetic fuels.  Wind, solar and efficiency are all well and good, but they don’t get B-52s into the air. The Air Force has programs testing every viable option for alternative fuels including bio-based and coal based.  There has been operational success with synthetic FT fuels, among the benefits of synthetic fuels is the near elimination of sulfur and particulates, reducing pollution and improving maintenance.

Interestingly, the military has found that ethanol and biodiesel are unsuitable for use in weapon systems due to safety risks, poor performance and maintenance problems.

Great analysis from the Rand Corporation: “Alternative Fuels for Military Applications”

The military understands as well as any organization the absurdity of using massive quantites of fuel to fight wars to protect access to those very same fuel supplies.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Dec 4, 2013

I once read a report from the CNO’s Strategic Studies Group (sometime in the early 2000s) on the processes that could be used to manufacture synthetic hydrocarbons. The study made an interesting assertion – the problem was almost trivial if the heat from nuclear fission power plants was available. The group determined that a more “interesting” problem was determining if the fuel could be manufactured if it was assumed that “the public” would not support expansion of nuclear energy.

One of my buddies served on that SSG. He was totally frustrated by the way that his fellow members were more concerned about an intriguing challenge than about providing a viable, defensible alternative that could be used to explain the need for additional nuclear plants on a larger variety of ships, especially including big deck amphibious ships.

Several studies were undertaken in 2008, 2009, and 2010 as a result of language specified by the Defense Appropriation Acts. They showed that nuclear powered ships, even with some disadvantageous assumptions, could compete on a pure lifecycle cost basis with oil fired plants with reasonably forseeable fuel price scenarios. I’m operating from memory here, but I think the breakever prices range from $109 per barrel for high powered cruisers to about $147 per barrel for large deck amphibious ships.

The Air Force fuel problem is somewhat different, but again, it can be eased considerably if the energy from nuclear plants can be used to create synthetic hydrocarbons.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on Dec 4, 2013

I find the idea of producing synthetic hydrocarbons from nuclear heat to be particularly fascinating.

I met folks from a company at a conference that was promoting a process for making fuels from CO2.   Their proposition is that waste CO2 + H2O + heat+power -> CO-H + O2.  They want to convert CO2 and water to syngas and oxygen, but they need heat to do it and so they propose to tack these systems onto existing thermal facilities.

Nuclear produces copious heat and power, maybe something like this is the solution for carbon. Turn that captured CO2 into commodity fuels using nuclear energy.  Carbon Capture and Utilization instead of Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

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