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Using Military Might for a Cooler World

By Cameron M. Burns

Rocky Mountain Institute’s continued influence in military circles might seem puzzling to the casual observer, but the logic’s simple. The military, especially the American military, has a huge influence on what we as a culture ultimately adopt.

Take, for example, the global positioning system (GPS). Initially patterned after ground-based radio navigation systems used in World War II, GPS was refined throughout the 1950s and ’60s until, in the early ’70s, when a group of military officers at the Pentagon decided to combine the best and latest technologies into the Defense Navigation Satellite System, later to become Navstar-GPS, and finally just GPS.

Today, GPS is a ubiquitous system, and a key tool for dozens of sectors (transportation, shipping, emergency services—even monitoring tectonics and the location of kids and pets). Soon, soon every cell phone and most cars will be equipped with GPS technology.

Similarly, the U.S. military had leading roles in the development of the microchip, the Internet, computers, radar, satellites, cell phones, weather-forecasting technology, chemical manufacturing and modern jet engines.

While GPS, the microchip and the Internet are the basis of handy gadgets with mass appeal, RMI’s work with the military—instilling the notion of energy efficiency—is less tactile but potentially even more influential.

Via military and civilian colleagues, RMI’s Chief Scientist Amory Lovins has advised the Department of Defense on energy efficiency for three decades, and today sees the department making great strides. Among other things, the DoD is now the world’s largest buyer of renewable energy, and is poised to drive cutting-edge advances in energy efficiency and resilient supplies.

As DOD energy blogger Andy Bochman recently noted, “Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins has been in this long game longer than anyone, and much of the credit for DOD’s current momentum on energy can be traced directly to his decades-long leadership and perseverance.”

Joint Force Quarterly

Recently, Lovins amplified his message by penning an important article, "DOD’s Energy Challenge Creates Strategic Opportunity” for Joint Force Quarterly and continuing his presentations at military staff colleges, National Defense Industries Association conferences and the American Society of Naval Engineers.

JFQ is not your standard trade rag. It’s the magazine of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a forum for the conversations that drive military doctrine. It’s read by all the military top brass, and is known for not pulling punches. Some of the knottiest issues the military has dealt with have been first presented or at least vetted in its pages. JFQ is even translated into Russian and Chinese, as military leaders in both countries want to know U.S. command’s thinking. The Russian translations often end up on the web.

In the article, Lovins writes, “Energy has become such a ‘master key’—it is so pervasive in its tangled linkages to nearly every other security issue—that no national security strategy or doctrine can succeed without a broad and sharp focus on how the United States and the world get and use energy.”

The JFQ piece re-presents the opportunities offered through energy efficiency and by two strategic capabilities (endurance and resilience), as had a 2008 Defense Science Board (DSB) task force report to which Lovins and other RMI experts contributed. Lovins also calls on military leaders to support civilian policymakers’ efficiency and renewable energy efforts.

“DoD’s knowledge of energy-related security risks needs to inform more systematically the councils of government,” Lovins writes. “If national-security outcomes like these past ones are not what DoD wants, it is the duty of military professionals to say so. Their guidance, and increasingly their achievements, can help the Department of Defense build a stronger America and a richer, fairer, cooler and safer world.”

The JFQ piece might not be read by your average GI, let alone the average American, but its readership has influence at the highest levels, and Lovins’s latest piece builds on advice he and a handful of DoD colleagues have been pushing for decades.

Laying the Groundwork

Between 1999-2001, and 2006-2008, Lovins served on DSB task forces that outlined the problems brought on by the military’s colossal energy use—a use that’s a massive hindrance to both mission-effectiveness and protecting the men and women in uniform.

In 2008, for example, the Department of Defense consumed 120 million barrels of oil, costing $16 billion. One-fifth of DoD’s oil—more than 90 million barrels a month—supports U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the average Marine combat unit goes through more than half a million gallons of fuel per day.

Delivering the fuel to the battlespace, Lovins and his DSB colleagues argued, “compromises operational capability and mission success, requires an excessive support force structure at the expense of operational forces, creates more risk for support operations than necessary, and increases life-cycle operations and support costs.”

And, the authors pointed out, “Almost complete dependence of military installations on a fragile and vulnerable commercial power grid and other critical national infrastructure places critical military and Homeland defense missions at an unacceptably high risk of extended disruption.”

The 2008 DSB task force also chided military leaders by noting that similar recommendations made by the task force in 2001 had “not been implemented”—not surprisingly, since the report was issued just weeks before 9/11.

Movement in the Military

Of course, RMI’s is not the only voice. An entire choir of military and civilian leaders is now pushing the energy efficiency agenda, and it shows.

A 2007 Executive Order requires the DoD to reduce energy intensity by FY2015 to 30 percent below FY2003. And the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (the law that funds the U.S. military) requires it to establish a goal to make or buy at least 25 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and to study solar and wind power feasibility for expeditionary forces.

But even more importantly, the act requires the DoD to value saved fuel at its “fully burdened cost” delivered to the platform, in theater, in wartime—a cost often five to tens of times higher than in the past, when delivery costs were ignored—and establishes energy key performance parameters, which contractors care intently about because if they aren’t met, the acquisition is cancelled.

With these philosophical and doctrinal changes coming at them, the Services have responded quickly. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, have in recent years adopted thousands of efficiency and renewables projects.

“The Defense Department has already become a leader in some areas of renewable power,” noted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2008. “The U.S. Navy is powering its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a 3.8 megawatt wind/diesel hybrid plant, the largest in the world. The Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, California, uses a geothermal energy plant (built in the 1970s) and is a net contributor to the local commercial electric grid. A project being tested at the Diego Garcia Naval Base in the Indian Ocean will generate electricity from temperature differences between the ocean’s surface and deep water. And a 14.2 megawatt photovoltaic array, again the largest in the world, became operational at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada in December 2007.”

What’s most important, Lovins recently noted, is that “the contractors are also starting to realize that something fundamental has changed.

“A military airframe maker told me they’re designing their next airplane on the assumption that saved fuel would be worth nearly 100 times more than what they assumed for the previous one, because the fully burdened cost of fuel for this airplane is the delivered cost in mid-air,” Lovins said. “That will be a very different airplane—with profound implications for civilian airplanes too.”

The military’s demands on its contractors—the manufacturers, suppliers, subcontractors and inventors—for everything from backpacks to tanks are rapidly shifting, and apparently, the shift is a natural fit. As Commodities Now recently noted, defense contractors’ “scientific and technical expertise coupled with their well-capitalized businesses is giving them an inside track into the world of intelligent utilities, green energy and emissions reductions.”

The Shift Continues

Just a few months ago, the Quadrennial Defense Review—a legislatively mandated review of Department of Defense strategy and priorities that sets “…a long-term course for DoD”—was released, and includes, for the first time, an energy section, reportedly influenced by the DSB’s and RMI’s work.

The Review even acknowledges (for the first time) the importance of climate change and energy. It also emphasizes the serious cybervulnerability of critical infrastructure (such as the grid vulnerabilities described in the 2008 DSB report) and nuclear proliferation concerns.

The solution, the DSB posited, is onsite (preferably renewable) power supplies in netted, islandable microgrids (small, independent grids that can work independently of larger commercial grids).

“DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found roughly 90 percent of Continental U.S. bases could actually meet those critical power needs from onsite or nearby and mainly renewable sources—and often cheaper,” Lovins said.

That the U.S. military has become the world’s largest buyer not only of oil but also of renewable energy and is now deep into efficiency is rewarding, but Lovins suspects the military is only getting started.

“The world’s militaries have, since ancient times, played a leading role in the development of mass production, miniaturization, and manufacturing and industrial standards,” noted Lovins. “We’ll continue to influence them so they influence contractors whose innovations help reshape our world. This is some of RMI’s most important work.”

(Learn more about RMI's work with the military.)

Cameron Burns is RMI’s senior editor.

--Published June 2010