The White House believes it has figured out how to get more money for clean-energy programs touted by President Obama without having it become political roadkill in the wake of the Solyndra controversy: Put it in the Pentagon.
While details are thin on the ground, lawmakers who work on both energy- and defense-spending policy believe the fiscal 2013 budget request to be delivered to Congress on Monday probably won’t include big increases for wind and solar power through the Energy Department, a major target for Republicans since solar-panel maker Solyndra defaulted last year on a $535 million loan guarantee.
But they do expect to see increases in spending on alternative energy in the Defense Department, such as programs to replace traditional jet fuel with biofuels, supply troops on the front lines with solar-powered electronic equipment, build hybrid-engine tanks and aircraft carriers, and increase renewable-energy use on military bases.
While Republicans will instantly shoot down requests for fresh spending on Energy Department programs that could be likened to the one that funded Solyndra, many support alternative-energy programs for the military.
“I do expect to see the spending,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, when asked about increased investment in alternative-energy programs at the Pentagon. “I think in the past three to five years this has been going on, but that it has grown as a culture and a practice – and it’s a good thing.”
“If Israel attacks Iran, and we have to go to war – and the Straits of Hormuz are closed for a week or a month and the price of fuel is going to be high,” Kingston said, “the question is, in the military, what do you replace it with? It’s not something you just do for the ozone. It’s strategic.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sits on both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said, “I don’t see what they’re doing in DOD as being Solyndra.”
“We’re not talking about putting $500 million into a goofy idea,” Graham told National Journal. “We’re talking about taking applications of technologies that work and expanding them. I wouldn’t be for DOD having a bunch of money to play around with renewable technologies that have no hope. But from what I understand, there are renewables out there that already work.”
A senior House Democrat noted that this wouldn’t be the first time that the Pentagon has been utilized to advance policies that wouldn’t otherwise be supported.
“They did it in the ’90s with medical research,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In 1993, when funding was frozen for breast-cancer research programs in the National Institutes of Health, Congress boosted the Pentagon’s budget for breast-cancer research – to more than double that of the health agency’s funding in that area.
Politically, the strategy makes sense. Republicans are ready to fire at the first sign of any pet Obama program, and renewable programs at the Energy Department are an exceptionally ripe target. That’s because of Solyndra, but also because, in the last two years, the Energy Department received a massive $40 billion infusion in funding for clean-energy programs from the stimulus law, a signature Obama policy. When that money runs out this year, a request for more on top of it would be met with flat-out derision from most congressional Republicans.
Increasing renewable-energy initiatives at the Pentagon can also help Obama advance his broader, national goals for transitioning the U.S. economy from fossil fuels to alternative sources. As the largest industrial consumer of energy in the world, the U.S. military can have a significant impact on energy markets – if it demands significant amounts of energy from alternative sources, it could help scale up production and ramp down prices for clean energy on the commercial market.
Obama acknowledged those impacts in a speech last month at the Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado. “The Navy is going to purchase enough clean-energy capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year. And it won’t cost taxpayers a dime,” Obama said.
“What does it mean? It means that the world’s largest consumer of energy – the Department of Defense – is making one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history,” the president added. “That will grow this market, it will strengthen our energy security.”
Experts also hope that Pentagon engagement in clean-energy technology could help yield breakthroughs with commercial applications.
Kingston acknowledged that the upfront costs for alternative fuels are higher than for conventional oil and gasoline. For example, the Air Force has pursued contracts to purchase biofuels made from algae and camelina, a grass-like plant, but those fuels can cost up to $150 a barrel, compared to oil, which is lately going for around $100 a barrel. Fuel-efficient hybrid tanks can cost $1 million more than conventional tanks – although in the long run they can help lessen the military’s oil dependence, Kingston said Republicans recognize that the up-front cost can yield a payoff later. “It wouldn’t be dead on arrival. But we’d need to see a two- to three-year payoff on the investment,” Kingston said.
Military officials – particularly Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has made alternative energy a cornerstone of his tenure – have been telling Congress for years that the military’s dependence on fossil fuels puts the troops – and the nation’s security – at risk.
Mabus has focused on meeting an ambitious mandate from a 2007 law to supply 25 percent of the military’s electricity from renewable power sources by 2025. (Obama has tried and failed to pass a similar national mandate.)
Last June, the DOD rolled out its first department-wide energy policy to coalesce alternative and energy-efficient initiatives across the military services. In January, the department announced that a study of military installations in the western United States found four California desert bases suitable to produce enough solar energy – 7,000 megawatts – to match seven nuclear power plants.
And so far, those moves have met with approval from congressional Republicans.
Even so, any request for new Pentagon spending will be met with greater scrutiny this year. The Pentagon’s budget is already under a microscope, due to $500 billion in automatic cuts to defense spending slated to take effect in 2013.
But even with those challenges, clean-energy spending probably won’t stand out as much in the military budget as it would in the Energy Department budget. Despite its name, the Energy Department has traditionally had little to do with energy policy – its chief portfolio is maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Without the stimulus money, last year only $1.9 billion of Energy’s $32 billion budget went to clean-energy programs. A spending increase of just $1 billion would make a big difference in the agency’s bottom line. But it would probably be easier to tuck another $1 billion or $2 billion on clean-energy spending into the Pentagon’s $518 billion budget. Last year, the Pentagon spent about $1 billion on renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs across its departments.
Kevin Baron contributed