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Renewable Energy Secures Military Functionality

Ribbon-cutting for a solar micro-grid at Fort Hunter Liggett, CA. U.S. (Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, public domain. www.bit.ly/2PlFNs4)

George Harvey

Oxymoron is a word for a term that appears to be self-contradictory, such as “jumbo shrimp.” An old friend of mine had a bumper sticker that read, “I was an oxymoron.” In his case, it indicated that he once worked military intelligence. The military can be very aware and forward-looking. On the other hand, it can sometimes appear to be very obtuse.

An example of looking forward and seeming obtuse is the history of paddle-driven steamships. The first fully steam-powered ship in the U.S. Navy, the Fulton, was commissioned in 1816. It was not a trivial ship; it had 32 large cannons aboard. But while paddle driven ships were obsolescent in the 1840s, the last two weren’t decommissioned by the Navy until 1945. Even more shocking sounding is the fact that they were both aircraft carriers, based in Chicago.

As a young officer, George H. W. Bush learned to land naval aircraft on a side-paddle aircraft carrier, the USS Sable. The navy had obtained two passenger lake ships that were not in use and converted them to aircraft carriers for training, operating them on Lake Michigan, where they were safe from attack. It might have been a smart move, but we can easily see that the story would sound crazy if it had just been left as, “The U.S. Navy had two side-paddle aircraft carriers.” The point is that the military does things for strange reasons sometimes, but the reasons occasionally turn out to be valid, regardless of how strange they might appear.

For many years, Members of Congress have tried to limit the military uses of renewable energy. Often, the motives for such limits seem to be just common sense. Several years back, there was a proposal before the Congress to disallow the armed forces from using energy sources that cost more than conventional forms in use. To many people, this seemed like a reasonable attempt to keep the military from experimenting in renewable energy, which was very costly at that time.

When Pentagon personnel testified to Congress, however, what they said was that investments in renewable energy were paid for many times over in protecting lives and material. At that time, lives, vehicles, and other material were being lost because of the need to move petroleum-based fuel by convoy to camps in Afghanistan. Putting up solar panels or wind turbines with batteries could prevent some of those losses. Comparing energy technologies using such obvious criteria as price per unit of energy alone could cost a lot of money and the lives of service personnel.

It is not just in combat areas that renewable energy has become important. Military bases cannot be guaranteed to provide their national security functions if they are dependent on grid power and the grid has gone down. For that reason, they have had their own microgrids which can cut themselves off from the grid and continue to operate when grid power is not available. In the past, this functionality was provided mainly by diesel generators. It is not a perfect solution, being dependent on fuel.

A 2nd Air Refueling Squadron KC-10 Extender prepares to refuel a B-2 Spirit. Replacing fossil fuels is a seemingly insurmountable challenge and opportunity. But it can be done. (Senior Airman Keith James, USAF, public domain www.bit.ly/3sq7Y7K)

A far more reliable source of energy for a microgrid is renewable resources backed up by battery. And as things have been developing, renewable resources are now getting cheaper to install and much cheaper to operate.

National security depends on many things. In an age dependent on fossil fuels, they become an object of concern. In the past, we have been put into economic slowdowns because of lack of fuel, and we are especially vulnerable to interruptions in the fuel supply. Though there are reports that the U.S. has become a net exporter of oil and gas, Energy Information Administration data for 2019 show that the U.S. produced 19.25 million barrels of petroleum per day, but it consumed about 20.46 (www.bit.ly/3fie8CU). The shortfall of 1.23 million barrels per day leaves us vulnerable to external disruption, and our internal infrastructure can also be vulnerable to attack. When our military is operating on renewable energy, it is far more resilient.

These are examples of areas where renewables are being used to replace fossil fuels to advantage. There are other areas that need to be addressed, such as fuels for aviation. The difficulties of long-range flight are often spoken of as insurmountable without fossil fuels. A recent article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, shows how even aircraft can be renewably powered by fuel derived from food waste (www.bit.ly/3sqjVtT).

It happens that the U.S. military is very aware of the problems of the pollution and climate crises, which are security issues themselves and have begun to diminish military functionality. It is also working on those issues as it shifts toward renewable energy sources.

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