Saving energy, saving soldiers' lives

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Who’s right? Is the Pentagon’s pursuit of green energy an outrageously expensive endeavor or an operational necessity? Yes, the impending concerns about a potential $259 billion budget reduction for the Defense Department over the next five years might make one question the fiscal sense of investing billions on renewable energy projects.
 
However, here’s my bottom line: Saving soldiers’ lives is more important than cutting the budget deficit. 
 
Consider these numbers.  In FY2012, the Army will spend about $4 billion on energy—25 percent on installations and 75 percent for military operations.  In Afghanistan alone, the Army consumes about 1.8 million gallons a day of fuel, roughly 15 gallons for each Soldier.  Vehicles consume most of that fuel, but generators powering tactical IT systems now account for more than 20 percent of operational fuel usage.
 
This dramatic fuel increase is a function of the exponential growth in communication technology within the tactical force structure. For example, the data throughput requirement for U.S. Central Command increased from 50Mb in 2001 to over 10Gb today. Additionally, computers within Army and Marine battalions increased 400 percent. Technology has increased our operational successes, but fuel needs have significantly increased the logistical burden.  
 
An Army study of fuel usage by operational forces deployed to Southwest Asia determined that more than 431 million gallons of fuel were consumed in 2007. Moving the fuel required more than 640,000 Soldiers either driving 140,000 fuel trucks or escort vehicles during more than 9,000 convoys.  Additionally, they learned that more than 3,000 Soldiers, civilians and contractors were killed during convoy operations from 2003-2007. If fuel consumption was reduced by one percent, 6,400 fewer personnel would be exposed to enemy fire, thereby potentially decreasing casualties.
 
At the tactical level, soldiers constantly seek ways to reduce the logistical burden of transporting fuel on the battlefield. For example, one enterprising soldier at an Afghanistan forward operating base bought cotton seed oil from a local farmer to power his tactical generators. Another employed a micro-grid capability at Bagram Airbase to increase generator efficiency and reduce fuel usage by 17 percent. Wider adoption of similar initiatives and conservation measures by operational forces could help achieve that one percent decrease in fuel usage.
 
The good news: energy reduction success stories abound. At Fort Carson, Colo., the Army built a two-megawatt solar system on 12 acres of landfill capable of powering 540 homes. At Fort Knox, Tenn., the Army spent about $10 million to install a geothermal energy system that will save $1 million a year and satisfy more than 50 percent of the base energy needs. At Fort Huachuca, Ariz., the Army is finishing construction of one of just 12 net-zero-energy schools in the country.
 
Public-private partnerships will most likely fund future efforts to reduce energy costs at military installations and long-term leases will reimburse those private sector investments. The Army’s recent request for proposal to award $7 billion in renewable energy projects producing at least one gigawatt of electricity by 2025 generated more than 900 inquiries.  Clearly, the private sector is excited about the Army’s green initiative. 
 
Without question, new technology initially is always expensive. The Navy is currently embarking on a renewable energy effort where the estimated cost for bio-fuels is $26 per gallon compared to roughly $3 per gallon for fossil fuel. Yes, the cost differential is striking.  However, the Navy paid approximately $425 per gallon for alternative fuels in 2009. Progress is being made, costs are being reduced.
 
Both renewable energy technologies and alternative fuels require capital investment. At more than 500 Department of Defense installations, however, renewable energy projects are reducing energy expenditures. The same is true at the tactical level, even though future operational benefits have yet to be realized.
 
So as the debate over renewable and alternative fuels swirls in Washington, I submit a longer-term focus is warranted. We may well discover that renewable or alternative energy sources are, in fact, less expensive once fully burdened costs of storing, distributing and protecting fossil fuels are calculated. However, regardless of the calculation, we must never forget the benefit of saving just one soldier’s life. In a single word—priceless.
 
Sorenson, a retired lieutenant general (U.S. Army), is a vice president and partner in A.T. Kearney's defense practice and a former U.S. Army chief information officer.