November 3, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 7Comment

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.

7 thoughts on “The Pentagon Considers Some of Oil’s Many Costs

  1. Someone needs to propose increasing spending on alternative technologies to Congress framed from this perspective. If the research is bundled with defense and increasing our military’s efficacy on the ground, perhaps the climate-change deniers on the right will be less resistant to it. Forget the ‘save our planet’ byline and stick’em with the ‘support our troops!’ message instead.

  2. Congress should be banned from excepting lucrative jobs when they leave their post so that the lobbyist don’t have so much pull with them and people would run for Congress to serve their constituents rather than their own self interest…it is an ethics violation.

    Support our Planet … Save our Troops!

  3. Well, if there weren’t imperialist and colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to obtain oil in the first place (from Kazakhstan, in the case of Afghanistan), then the whole point would be moot. There would be far less consumption of oil, far less risk of violence, and far less difficulty supplying its military.

    And if retaliating to 9/11 were the issue, the US would have invaded Saudi Arabia, where the hijackers came from. That country has a lot of oil, too.


  4. There’s a tactical advantage to solar power too; it’s quiet. I spent many an evening in the field manning a mobile radio installation. We were considered a prime asset and target being a linchpin in that C3 paradigm – the communications link between Command and Control. Being able to set up shop without a diesel generator signaling your position would be a significant advantage.

  5. The Rocky Mountain Institute has been working along the same lines for the past couple of years – the fact that stayed with me was that although the Pentagon uses 78% of the US governments energy buy , in effect they were assuming the cost of each unit was basically zero. And when you looked at the cost of moving petrol to a front line unit (with all the extra costs of security, etc) – the cost became astronomical.

    The fact is that the ‘treehugging’ tactics of good insulation, solar energy, etc not only save money but also lives. I wonder how certain new members of Congress will react to that?

  6. To answer Mike’s question: flat denial. (They’ve never been interested in the actual facts of a situation before, why should they start now?)

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