In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Robert James criticized military applications of renewable energy technology, attributing the military's interest in diversifying its energy sources to “fads and political correctness.”
The Wall Street Journal characteristically failed to note that James, who was identified by as a retired rear admiral, previously served as a vice president of Mobil Oil Corporation and an economist for the Continental Oil Company. As of September 2010, James was “involved in a wide range of U.S. and foreign investments including oil and gas exploration,” according to his Carnegie Council biography.
James declares that rather than continuing its “flirtation with green energy,” the military should focus on its primary mission: “defending the nation.” But the military sees national security and energy security as inextricably linked. The Pentagon's Operational Energy Strategy emphasizes that transitioning towards renewable energy will enhance the military's effectiveness:
Reducing demand, expanding supply, and building an energy-secure force will mean a military that uses less energy, has more secure energy sources, and has the energy resources it needs to protect the American people.
While James acknowledges that the enormous cost of supplying fuel to our military bases and combat vehicles is problematic, he rejects the feasibility of transitioning to renewable energy sources. From the op-ed:
We would need an area three times the size of the continental United States to replace one-third of our oil requirements [with biofuels]. These figures are confirmed in that we now employ one-third of the corn harvest--our biggest crop-- to replace only 3% of our oil consumption.
Any other form of renewable energy on the battlefield will face the same inherent limitation: the amount of land and space required to gather these very dilute energy streams. You may be able to recharge a laptop or heat a tent with a fold-up solar panel. But anything bigger would require a full-fledged array of gear that would easily be picked up by enemy radar. And what better way to give away your position than by erecting a three-story windmill?
In fact, a recent study by the University of Illinois found that “biofuel crops cultivated on available land could produce up to half of the world's current fuel consumption - without affecting food crops or pastureland.” The study defines “available land” as 1,107 million hectares (about 1.4 times the size of the continental U.S.) of abandoned, degraded, or low-producing land globally.
Given this potential, the military is expanding its use of biofuels. The Air Force plans to transition 50 percent of its domestic fuel to biofuels by 2016. The Pentagon is also developing fuel efficient hybrid vehicles and ships. In 2009, the Navy introduced its first hybrid vessel, the U.S.S. Makin Island, which was dubbed the “Prius of Navy warships.”
Furthermore, existing military pilot programs have demonstrated the advantages of switching to portable, renewably-powered equipment. In a recent press release, the U.S. Marine Corps highlighted an initiative by their Expeditionary Energy Office to establish an entirely solar-powered base:
1st Lt. Josef Patterson, platoon commander with Company I, said their entire forward operating base is solar-powered, and his Marines love it. When patrolling, they're using the Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System, or SPACES, which charges batteries, operates communications equipment and runs small electronic accessories. The system generates energy from solar panels on a tarp that can easily be rolled up and placed in a backpack when on the move.
Patterson said normally his platoon would take three to four days worth of batteries for a three-week patrol, which takes up a lot of space and weight in backpacks. But with SPACES, they're lightening the load.
“I was a little skeptical at first, but we're completely solar-powered, and I think it's a great thing,” said Patterson.
Charette referred to these Marines as pioneers for using this kind of equipment in combat. By the summer of 2011, E2O will be able to deploy a battalion-level unit with renewable energy capabilities and energy efficient technology. “The only fuels we'll see on the battlefield in the future are the fuels we'll need to move our airplanes and our vehicles,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Army has adopted a comprehensive approach to reduce energy and water consumption through efficiency and renewable new technology:
The Army is developing, piloting, testing and implementing new and emerging solutions that are reducing the Army's demands for electric power, fuel and water.
“Clearly, future operations will depend on our ability to reduce dependency, increase efficiency and use more renewable or alternative sources of energy. We've made great strides in this area and we intend to do more,” Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh said during his posture hearing to Congress earlier this month.
Through a suite of energy initiatives, the Army is leveraging technology and enhancing operational performance across the range of military operations, addressing Soldier, platform and sustainment capability needs.
This holistic approach is expected to reduce fuel consumption by about 30-60 percent relative to current usage baselines and includes sensors and control systems, energy storage, energy-efficient structures and renewable sources.
The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) is also reviewing designs for portable wind turbines, such as Arista Power's WindTamer. Unlike the “three-story windmill” that Mr. James fears will endanger troop safety, the WindTamer can be used in a portable Renewable Power Station that “enables power where no infrastructure is currently in place, resulting in large savings and providing power for essential needs in remote locations.”