Renewable Energy Demand Reaches U.S. Front Lines

At remote U.S. military bases in Iraq, one of the most oil-rich countries in the world, American commanders are pleading for solar panels and wind generators to save the lives of troops forced to protect lengthy and vulnerable supply lines that wind through the country and feed the military's voracious fuel appetite.

Published: 15-Aug-2006

At remote U.S. military bases in Iraq, one of the most oil-rich countries in the world, American commanders are pleading for solar panels and wind generators to save the lives of troops forced to protect lengthy and vulnerable supply lines that wind through the country and feed the military's voracious fuel appetite.

The urgent request for renewable energy systems was submitted July 25 by U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, who commands U.S. forces in western Iraq's restive Anbar province. The document pointed to the vulnerability of American supply lines to insurgent attack by ambush or roadside bombs, and said reducing the military's dependence on fuel for power generation could reduce the number of road-bound convoys.

Electricity to power everything from computers to air conditioners on U.S. bases is by means of monstrous diesel-fueled generators kept running 24 hours a day. Feeding those generators -- and fueling the many vehicles used to patrol Iraq's roadways -- requires fuel convoys that originate as far away as Kuwait. The document said the majority of the supply convoys on Iraq's roads are carrying fuel.

"Without this solution [renewable energy systems], personnel loss rates are likely to continue at their current rate. Continued casualty accumulation exhibits potential to jeopardize mission success," the request said.

Coming as it does from a battlefield commander who has directly tied the potential for renewable energy to reducing American casualties in Iraq, versus an initiative pushed from cost cutters from inside the department, the request for renewable energy systems could very well represent a tipping point in the Pentagon's commitment to renewable energy, said experts who have advised the military on reducing fuel consumption.

"This is the beginning of the people trying to understand that the whole notion of energy means being more effective in operations," said Terry Pudas, deputy director of the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation.

He said the military has long thought more in terms of effectiveness than efficiency, a notion that is changing as "the burden of logistics and energy on the battlefield now really does become an effectiveness issue."

The American military has embraced a doctrine of war fighting designed for nonlinear battlefields, such as Iraq, where the traditional notion of front lines and secure rear areas in reality no longer exists.

Fuel vs. Efficiency
To fight in smaller, more agile and distributed forces on such battlefields will require shedding impediments that slow a unit's ability to react to rapidly changing battlefield developments. "Clearly, dragging around a lot of tanker trucks is an impediment," Pudas said. He cited a recent Pentagon study that said 70 percent of what the Army hauls around the battlefield is fuel.

The U.S. military is in many ways far ahead of the civilian sector in using renewable energy, said Amory Lovins, chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of "Winning the Oil Endgame." While solar and wind generation are in use at military installations around the world, this is the first known request for such systems from a front-line commander, he said.

Lovins has urged the military to develop a decentralized power system in Iraq, not so vulnerable to insurgent attacks, and said there exists real potential with solar and wind power. Because of the number of sunlight days in Iraq, it is an ideal locale for solar power, he said. The Pentagon's fuel cost calculations have traditionally been based on wholesale prices, and have not taken into account the actual cost of delivering it to front-line units, said Lovins, who advises a Defense Science Board panel on fuel efficiency. Before the Iraq war, "fuel logistics were assumed to be free and uninterruptible."

"If you're talking about getting the gas to an M1A1 tank in Fallujah, the supply lines, the tanker vehicles and their protection could drive the cost up to $100 a gallon or more," said Jim Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and currently an energy adviser to the Pentagon and Congress.

Speaking to Washington reporters recently, John Young, the Pentagon's research and engineering director, who has commissioned a task force on energy efficiency and renewable fuels, said the Defense Department is trying to develop a more accurate calculation for the delivered price of fuel to forward-deployed troops.

He said those calculations will be used to price the life-cycle costs of future acquisition programs, including everything from vehicles to generators to aircraft, and will influence where the department spends money.

Young said the department is fully committed to renewable energy, citing one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent memos urging the department to cut its fuel costs.

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