John Perlin has written an interesting Miller-McCune article about how the Pentagon has come to understand some of the problems associated with powering Iraq and Afghanistan operations – and how they’re now reducing operations’ energy consumption and embracing solar power.
Perlin describes the experience of Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, who assumed command of the coalition forces in Iraq’s Al Anbar province in 2006 and soon realized that his command’s reliance on trucking in liquid fossil fossil fules was contributing to casualties. In today’s conflicts, Marine combat brigade uses half a million gallons of fuel a day, with much of that powering generators. The convoys that bring that fuel to military bases make easy targets for roadside bombs and ambushes, and they also must traverse harsh terrain that can be dangerous even without enemy involvement. Zilmer learned that convoys account for about half of all casualties – and so he recommended reducing the frequency with which convoys had to transport fuel.
The convoys’ role in mounting casualty figures should be enough of a reason to address their frequency, but Perlin notes that convoys also require the protection of combat forces. Diverting those forces from their other duties for this purpose is a big expense, and results in the fuel costing 15 times as much as its actual purchase price.
The Pentagon was evidently receptive to the message from Zilmer (and probably from others as well) about the importance of reducing fossil-fuel transport. Perlin reports:
The Pentagon calls the new concept the “fully burdened cost of fuel.” A study recently commissioned by the Department of Defense (PDF here) suggests by reckoning the “fully burdened cost of fuel” in both blood and money, alternative sources of power, including energy efficiency, “rank on par with the business case for development of even more effective offensive weapons, sophisticated fuel transport tankers, mine resistant armored vehicles and net-centric technologies.”
The report, produced by Deloitte LLP, could mimic an environmentalist’s talking points, including discussions of “a more sustainable planet” (but perhaps minus the suggestion of nuclear power). “Game-changing strategies for reducing this casualty rate … include widespread and aggressive conservation techniques; the use of renewable resources, in particular, solar and wind energy within the theater; renewable carbon-based fuels generated in theater, such as algae, biomass, and other alternative fuels; the use of highly efficient electric vehicles; nuclear fission; hot/cold fusion; fuel cell technology, and other innovations currently being experimented within labs around the world.”
Although the Pentagon denied Zilmer’s request for solar panels and wind turbines in 2006, citing concerns about the technologies’ maturity, the battlefield now boasts GREENS (Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Systems) photovoltaic systems that can quickly be sent to remote areas. A $100 million investment in insulating tents in Iraq and Afghanistan reduces energy costs by $2 million every day. It’s not clear how widespread these changes are, but it’s at least a step in the right direction.
It’s hard to read the article (click through for the whole piece) without feeling a little surge of optimism, but it also highlights one of the reasons why we’re having such a hard time embracing large-scale energy conservation and renewable-energy generation.
The Pentagon was able to see some of the impacts of their reliance on oil and could easily calculate a cost that encompassed more than just the purchase price. A single Department was responsible for purchasing the fuel and paying some of the associated costs, and the savings from conservation and renewables investments also show up in its budget.
When it comes to national energy policy, the picture is different. Most of us can’t see the link between our fossil-fuel use and its toll on the planet. (Many of us know the link exists, but it’s not visible in the stark way that ambushed convoys are.) We don’t pay directly for all the costs – from ecosystem destruction and asthma to climate change-related crop failures – that our fuel choices incur, so it’s hard for us to recognize the savings from reducing fossil-fuel use.
How can we make the costs of fossil-fuel use more visible? How can we, given our current political system, put the costs and potential savings onto the same balance sheet? Until we can accomplish these things, it’ll be hard to make the kinds of changes that need to be made.