The U.S. military is getting serious about energy change

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One thing the military is getting right these days: Making the connection between fossil fuel dependence and insecurity. I did a lot of research in the past year on efforts throughout the Department of Defense as a whole, and especially within the Navy and Air Force, to improve energy efficiency on military bases in the United States. For instance, Jacksonville Naval Air Station, in Jacksonville, Florida, has put young officers in charge of changing the culture of energy use from within their own units. They've convinced their fellow soldiers to make small changes, like turning off lights that aren't being used or sharing a single coffeemaker among several people. More importantly, they've got soldiers thinking in broad ways about energy, waste, and future security—What else could be done with the money spent on unnecessary energy use? What happens in a fuel-related crisis if this base can't be more self-sufficient?

These changes in culture and ways of thinking are making a difference. Last summer, officers at Jacksonville Naval Air Station told me that, thanks to several different energy efficiency campaigns and improvements, they've watch activity on the base increase over the last three years while energy use on the base has fallen.

There are some interesting and important changes afoot in the way the military handles energy. And not just at home. David Biello of Scientific American has a really fascinating story about the Department of Defense getting involved with ARPA-e—a Department of Energy program for developing cutting-edge energy technology. Among the collaborations: Energy storage systems for the front lines of war.

That's why the U.S. Defense (DoD) and Energy (DoE) departments are partnering on initiatives to further develop and test energy-storage technologies first developed by ARPA-e. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced two such development and deployment partnerships on March 2 for power electronics modules and batteries capable of storing megawatts of power--both to be funded by a requested $25 million each from DoD and ARPA-e in the fiscal year 2012 budget.

"Twenty-five million dollars is the cost of one H-1 helicopter," Mabus said. "The change that $25 million from DoD and ARPA-e can generate, can multiply that one helicopter hundreds and thousands of times."

Mabus was referring to saving both lives--for every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq, one soldier or Marine is killed or wounded, according to a U.S. Army study--and money. The DoD fuel bill came to some $14 billion in 2010. "For every dollar the price of a barrel of oil goes up, the Navy spends $31 million more for fuel," Mabus noted. "Our dependence on fossil fuels creates strategic, operational and tactical vulnerabilities for our forces."

The Navy has taken a lead in attempting to change that, setting a goal of deriving half its energy needs from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020 as well as making half of its bases energy self-sufficient.

Scientific American: U.S. Military links energy research to lives and dollars saved