Although investment in renewables could substantially reduce what the military pays for fuel in the long run, the up-front cost for new, often untested technologies is high—and the Pentagon will have to accept the bet that at least some of them won’t work. These efforts come, of course, just as Congress wants to slash spending—a belt-tightening to which even the Defense Department won’t be immune.
The move also hinges on how well the military can navigate new relationships with the small constellation of clean-tech entrepreneurs that make up the nation’s nascent renewable-energy industry. Those companies, many of which are still seeking venture capital, aren’t always well positioned to deal with the Pentagon’s onerous, often stovepiped, and frequently lengthy procurement process.
Leading the charge through all of this is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has made alternative energy a cornerstone of his tenure. “We can establish a market for alternative energy because of the size and the amount of energy we use,” he told National Journal.
Overall, the Pentagon is aggressively working to meet a mandate, contained in a 2007 law, to generate 25 percent of its electricity using wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2025. What’s more, the Air Force says it will buy roughly 400 million gallons of alternative fuel by 2016, enough to power half of its domestic flights, and the Navy plans to shift half of its energy usage from fossil fuels to renewable sources by 2020. Pentagon officials say that these are extraordinarily ambitious goals; they’ve only just begun to think about how to realize them.
At Mabus’s direction, the USS Makin Island an amphibious assault ship that launches jets, helicopters, and Marine watercraft, has been outfitted with a hybrid engine—a supersized version of what’s under the hood of a Prius—and the Navy is considering hybrid engines for a small fleet of its next-generation DDG-1000 destroyers. The service has also successfully powered F-18 warplanes, helicopters, and so-called swift boats using biofuels made from algae and from camelina, a flowering member of the mustard family. A pair of Marine forward operating bases in southern Afghanistan’s violent Helmand province are run entirely on solar power, while a company of about 100 Marines there recently spent a month recharging their radios and GPS devices using roll-up solar panels rather than bulky batteries. (They are “logistical centers at the edge of the battlefield,” according to 1st Lt. Gregory Wolf, a Marine Corps spokesman.) Overall, the Pentagon has nearly 500 renewable-energy projects and installations—and top Defense officials say they’re just getting started.
Yet despite the attention that renewables are attracting, fossil fuels (chiefly oil and coal) remain the lifeblood of the nation’s economy. Wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable-power sources make up less than 5 percent of the nation’s electricity mix—and cost about 11 to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 3 to 9 cents for such conventional power sources as coal, nuclear, and natural gas. Hybrid and electric vehicles, which dramatically cut the amount of petroleum needed for transportation, account for less than 5 percent of all passenger vehicles sold and cost 20 to 50 percent more than their conventional counterparts. A few small companies make biofuels from renewable nonfood sources, including algae and switchgrass; that fuel, however, costs $140 to $150 per barrel, compared with about $100 for a barrel of oil (although biofuel prices, like oil prices, fluctuate depending on the cost of the commodities used to produce them).
President Obama has tried to spur a transition of the U.S. economy from fossil fuels to clean energy, but his efforts have largely stalled, chiefly because of pushback from Republicans in Congress and a powerful lobbying campaign by the coal and oil industries. Sweeping climate-change legislation that would have priced fossil-fuel emissions and mandated purchases of renewable electricity—creating both demand and a market for clean energy—died in Congress and is unlikely to be revived as long as the GOP controls the House.
Clean-tech companies and venture capitalists say that the military’s latest efforts come just as those firms are in desperate need of a boost from the federal government, whether through a mandate, a price signal on fossil fuels, or just a giant new customer. Companies say they need a kick-start to get the technologies close to the point of “price parity”—almost equal to the cost of fossil fuels. When that happens, these firms say, they’re confident more demand will emerge. But federal help for renewables is under attack today as never before. House Republican leaders, skeptical of climate-change science and eager to slash federal spending, shoot down anything that resembles new government regulation—and they have placed the paltry clean-energy subsidies that do exist at the center of their assault on government spending.