US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (left), amphibious assault ship USS Boxer and associated ships conducting security and stability operations on October 6, 2019, in the South China Sea. The US Department of Defense is the world's largest government consumer of energy. Photo: AFP / US Navy / Erwin Jacob

As strange as it may sound to some, it is the defense sector that should be on the front line of the renewable-energy revolution.

Let’s start with the fact that the military has always been good at innovations or adapting new technologies for its needs. And there is no need to go far for examples.

The Internet, which is now an essential part of our lives, owes its existence to the US military. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the technical foundation of the Internet, was developed by military researchers as an information-sharing system.

Night vision, digital photography, satellite navigation and drones were all developed in military research complexes. Today, all these inventions have found civilian applications.

Additionally, the demand for renewables in the defense sector will boost the industry. The more contracts, the more money is invested in the future of green energy.

The cost efficiency of renewables is another reason for the military to take a leadership role in the development and procurement of green energy technologies. Whether in peacetime or wartime, the defense sector consumes a huge amount of fossil energy. The US Department of Defense alone is the largest government consumer of energy. Any military budget would no doubt benefit from adopting energy-efficient solutions.

Improved military effectiveness

But most important, energy efficiency is a matter of security and enhanced military performance. In situations of armed conflict, mobile solar-power units make soldiers less vulnerable to enemy forces, whereas convoys transporting diesel fuel through combat zones are at risk.

Naval ships can be an easier target, too. In 2000, the USS Cole was attacked by al-Qaeda militants while refueling in a Yemeni port. As many as 17 sailors were killed. Gas-electric hybrid battleships require fewer stops and thus are safer. These ships have a greater operating range and can spend more time at sea.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a recent article for Die Welt, reducing dependency on fossil fuels can make troops and equipment “more secure, by improving our ability to operate independently and flexibly.” He has noted that members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are taking a lead in this field by “using biofuels, developing hybrid vehicles and improving the energy efficiency of bases and other infrastructure.”

Vice-Admiral Dennis McGinn, a member of the Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board, shared his thoughts about increasing the use of renewable energy in the defense sector.

“Deploying renewable energy on military installations increases the diversity of their energy portfolio and thereby creates more energy security and resilience. This in turn contributes directly to the installations’ mission effectiveness and assurance, especially in areas subject to power outages due to severe weather and natural disasters,” McGinn told this writer.

“When energy storage and network management information technology are combined with distributed renewable energy resources, even greater mission assurance and flexibility are achieved. There is less reliance on grid-supplied electricity and an opportunity to better balance energy supply and demand. Opportunities for cost savings are also made possible.

“In some cases, public/private partnerships can use innovative business models to provide the multiple benefits of renewable energy to the military installation, the private utility company, and to the surrounding community,” he said.

How the military goes green

A fair amount of successful initiatives are already under way.

Next month, construction of a unique floating solar microgrid is to be launched at Fort Bragg, a US Army military base in North Carolina. With around 57,000 military personnel, Fort Bragg covers more than 650 square kilometers and is one of the world’s largest military installations. In conjunction with some other measures like the improvement of the boiler, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning), and water-conservation systems, this will save the army more than US$2 million.

In 2016, a solar-panel system was set up in the US Army’s Fort Detrick in Maryland. During World War II, that military base was the center of the US biological-weapons program. Nowadays, it focuses on defense against biological threats. The 60,000-panel solar array provides it with 15 megawatts of electricity, which accounts for 12% of Fort Detrick’s energy needs.

Another US military installation that is going green is Kentucky-based Fort Campbell. The home of the 101st Airborne Division, the base is now equipped with a 5MW solar system. The array meets about 10% of the installation’s energy requirements.

In 2018, a 10MW solar-panel array was installed at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. In the past, Redstone Arsenal played an essential role in ballistic-missile development. Today, the 40,000-personnel installation hosts the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Missile Defense Agency.

Europe is also moving toward sustainable energy models in the defense sector. There is a dedicated consultation forum established by the European Commission, the CF SEDSS. During Phase II, the working groups have elaborated nearly two dozen defense-energy project proposals, as well as multiple project ideas.

An example of integrating new technologies into traditional power grids is a project implemented at an EU multinational military training mission (EUTM) in Mali. The equipment includes both fixed and portable solar photovoltaic panels as well as electricity and water-monitoring systems.

While better military performance, cost reduction, and energy efficiency are of top priority, there is one more strong argument in favor of the defense opting for sustainable energy. The detrimental effects of climate change are occurring worldwide, and this is something defense leaders are aware of. Floods, droughts, wildfires, and melting ice caps are all potential sources of conflicts.

Just as the military takes care of its veterans and the families of service members, it should be no less concerned about the health of Mother Earth. And it is not just about further new projects. The role of the military should be much more profound: to take the lead in the green energy revolution.

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Tatiana Kanunnikova

Russian journalist Tatiana Kanunnikova is a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs.