Earlier this year, we picked up a story about a Marine Corps regiment that was toting flexible solar panels to power their radios, and using solar tarps to light tents at night and a solar panel array to run more than 20 lighting systems and 15 computers at one time at a forward operating base in Afghanistan. Such uses, reports David Roberts in the December 2011 Outside, are focusing “attention on the tactical advantages of small-scale, distributed renewable energy.” But more than that, Roberts writes, “the Marines’ efforts will drive R&D that could bring down prices for the kinds of technologies desperately needed in regions affected by war, poverty, or natural disasters.”
You got a problem with that?
The Pentagon’s commitment to biofuels is helping grow Solazyme, the South San Francisco-based startup that ferments algae to produce oil that can be refined into jet fuel, and Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels, which makes a drop-in fuel from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats. Yes, these fuels are far too expensive to be competitive right now and I admit to being something of a skeptic about their long-term viability. But with a buyer in the military, these companies are being given a chance to grow, bring down prices and potentially penetrate the commercial aviation market. Witness the announcement by United that it intended to negotiate the purchase of 20 million gallons per year of Solazyme’s algae-based biofuel for delivery perhaps as soon as 2014.
The crazy truth is that while Karl Rove and Co. continue to flog Solyndra, chipping away at support for mainstream programs that back renewables, the military is merrily pouring money into a whole range of technologies – the Army alone expects to invest $7.1 billion into cleantech in the next decade, and a Pew study forecast that by 2030, the Defense Department altogether will be investing $10 billion annually into the sector.
Make no mistake, the military is pursuing alternatives and efficiencies because doing so makes the troops better, more secure fighters. As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said earlier this year, “For every 50 convoys of gasoline we bring in, we lose a Marine. We lose a Marine, killed or wounded. That is too high a price to pay for fuel.”
A good progressive might reply – correctly – that the best way to save Marines would be to get them the hell out of Afghanistan. And progressives are well advised to work to make that happen. Deriding the military for being green, however, isn’t going to accomplish that. Instead, it just might endanger a major opportunity to move the country beyond fossil fuels.
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