Energy diversity is a national security imperative

Department of Defense

When Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, first visited my office last year, I was one of the newest members of the House Armed Services Committee. I was eager to hear what he would want to tell me. I expected to hear about the sequester, recruiting and the drawdown, or about medical care. I certainly did not expect the topic he actually raised: “Congressman,” he said, “I want to talk to you about solar energy.”

It turns out that one of the most dangerous operations conducted on remote battlefields is moving large amounts of petroleum from one point to another. Our supply lines are key targets for our enemies; more than 3,000 American service members have been killed or wounded in attacks on fuel convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq. That threat also means we have to pull resources from combat missions and divert them to protecting our convoys.

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So the Marines have started to move away from petroleum. They’ve learned to power their bunkers with solar panels instead of generators. They use solar panels on backpacks to power small appliances and on tents to keep equipment cool. It lightens their load and decreases their vulnerability.

Before he left my office that day, Amos made sure to look me in the eyes and let me know in no uncertain terms that the Marines would not be happy to see their solar power taken away — kind of a reverse Charlton Heston moment for me.

The Navy is also diversifying, investing in algae and biofuels to power its ships and planes. Having drop-in ready, alternative fuel options for commanders provides them with a greater range of resources for executing their missions. The Navy is also taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of its vessels, in part by using new hull coatings to reduce friction and stern flaps to reduce drag and turbulence. This allows the fleet to go farther on less fuel. And vessels are installing “Shipboard Energy Dashboards” to give crews a real-time energy picture to optimize consumption. As we continue to rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific, Defense Department officials are rightly concerned about the “tyranny of distance” and the security concerns that come with needing to refuel our ships frequently around the world.

Diversifying our military’s energy supply isn’t some pipe dream touted solely by the environmental community or ideological politicians; it is a top priority for military leaders who view it as a national security imperative that will improve mission readiness and save American lives. That alone is enough reason to earn the support of the American people and their government. But we know that this strategy will also bring significant economic benefits.

First, energy security will help the federal budget. The military is the largest institutional consumer of petroleum in the entire world, using 104 million barrels in 2012 at a cost of $16.4 billion. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Defense Department’s petroleum costs quadrupled between 2005 and 2011, despite using 4 percent less. Last year, the Defense Department spent $14.8 billion on fuel for operational missions. Energy diversity protects against spikes in the costs of petroleum.

Second, there are private sector economic benefits. Given the size of the military energy budget, it is fair to say that even a relatively small change at the Pentagon away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy could significantly change the alternative energy sector here in the United States. Investments by the military in new energy efficiencies and fuel-saving technologies, and developing more kinds of renewables, would create thousands of new green jobs in the private sector. Further, as we’ve seen with technologies like GPS and the Internet, the military has the ability to research, develop and innovate on a massive scale, leading to dynamic new and cost-saving private sector initiatives.

Our military deserves congressional support for these efforts to enhance our national security, protect our warfighters, and save money. Some of that support could come through passage of the Department of Defense Energy Security Act (DODESA), which I introduced with Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) earlier this year. DODESA would improve the operational and installation sides of the military’s energy platform.

Fossil fuels are, and will continue to be, overwhelmingly the choice for powering equipment, vehicles, aircraft and naval vessels. They account for about 75 percent of the Department of Defense’s energy use. DODESA would support research on how to improve energy efficiency in tactical vehicles like tanks and planes. On the installation side, DODESA supports the development of micro-grids like we’ve seen at the University of California, San Diego, that allow a base to move off the volatile civilian energy grid.

My constituents in San Diego understand these connections as well as anyone. My district is home to one of the largest military communities in the world, including MCAS Miramar, NAS North Island, and Naval bases Point Loma, Coronado, and San Diego, including 53 ships and two aircraft carriers.

We are also one of the nation’s foremost clean technology hubs, with leadership in alternative fuels, solar and wind energy, micro-grids, and electric vehicles. Already, hundreds of companies, new ventures and startups are demonstrating that the clean energy sector can be a profitable one. If the military continues a concentrated push away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, the job growth in these fields would be enormous, benefiting the countries that have the capacity and capability to manufacture the necessary equipment.

It’s easy for San Diegans, and all Americans, to appreciate that a commitment by Congress and the Pentagon to promote military energy security will make our country more secure, create high-quality jobs here in the United States and benefit our environment along the way. 

Peters has represented California’s 52nd Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Armed Services, and the Science, Space and Technology committees.