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U.S. Military can be a trailblazer in renewable energy

Senator Mark Udall

The Pentagon recently released its first-ever operational energy strategy last month—a plan that could dramatically cut costs and save service members' lives. The plan is not about fielding a new weapons system, but rather is a comprehensive strategy to reduce the military's reliance on fossil fuel.

By advancing cutting-edge energy technologies like portable solar power, algae-based diesel fuel and microgrids, the Pentagon's energy strategy could transform the way we carry out military campaigns. This could even shift the geopolitics of oil in our favor, and ultimately lead to widespread use of renewable energy in the civilian world.

The military seems like an unusual trailblazer in the effort to go green. But our national security leaders say it may be the most important work we do to keep our nation secure.

"Energy needs to be the first thing we think about," said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "before we deploy another soldier, before we build another ship or plane." Former General and current CIA director David Petraeus recently issued a new fuel conservation policy for troops in Afghanistan.

The statistics are staggering and clearly illustrate what's at stake. The U.S. Military is the world's single-largest industrial consumer of oil, using more oil than 85 percent of all other countries combined. Every $10 increase in the price per barrel of oil costs the Pentagon $1.3 billion.

Because we must go to costly lengths to protect and deliver fuel supplies in combat zones, the same gallon of gas that might cost a driver $4 in Denver costs taxpayers nearly $400 per gallon by the time it reaches our troops in Afghanistan.

In the theater of war, oil is our greatest vulnerability. More than 3,000 service members have been killed or injured defending fuel and water supply lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fuel convoys are so vulnerable that Osama bin Laden reportedly called them our troops' "umbilical cord."

I introduced a bill to help advance the military's energy strategy and spur it into further action. The Senate Armed Services Committee adopted several measures from it for the National Defense Authorization Act, reflecting the fact that the committee stands united behind these important initiatives.

Some of my colleagues in Congress, however, have expressed concern about the cost of the Pentagon's energy security initiatives. I agree we must make cuts to settle our crippling debt, but we also must heed the words of our military leaders, who caution that cuts should be strategic and not come at the expense of investments that can strengthen our economy and save billions of dollars in the near future.

Energy is one of those investments. Not only would renewable energy save money and lives in the military, it may be our best hope of bringing these new technologies to the public. We now rely on countless tools—from GPS to radar to the Internet—originally developed by the Pentagon.

If history is a guide, tomorrow's viable renewable energy technologies may easily be in the hands of a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine today. The Department of Defense has already shown leadership in reducing its fossil fuel dependence. Consider:

• Troops in Afghanistan have begun using portable solar panels, among other technologies.

• The Navy is developing the "Great Green Fleet," which could sharply reduce fuel consumption. The 844-foot U.S.S. Makin Island has a hybrid-electric drive that saved more than one million gallons of fuel on its maiden voyage.

• The Air Force is now certifying advanced alternative fuels that would allow pilots to be far less reliant on imported fossil fuels, all without compromising aircraft performance.

• Since their deployment to Afghanistan, the Marines and sailors of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, have been working with the Experimental Forward Operating Base, using portable solar power rather than liquid fuel.

• More than 60 Army installations, including Colorado's Fort Carson, are leading the way through a voluntary pilot program called Net Zero, in which they aim to replace or recycle as much energy, water, and waste as they use.

There's no single solution to our energy security challenge. These efforts aren't a silver bullet that can solve all our problems. It's more of a silver buckshot solution.

When we're fighting two wars, struggling to contain our national debt, and growing more concerned every day about our ability to compete in the 21st century economy, we should listen to our military leaders about the investments they say they need.

Mark Udall was elected to the U.S. Senate from Colorado in 2008. Prior to that, he represented the state's 2nd Congressional District for five terms. In 2007, the House of Representatives twice passed a national renewable electricity standard championed by Udall. He continues his work in the Senate to enact a national RES.

September/October 2011