Military’s Need for Clean Energy Solutions is Driving Innovation

This weekend’s New York Times had an interesting article exploring one of the ways that the Pentagon is seeking to solve its energy challenges: trash-to-gas. The article brings up several points about the military’s unique role in energy innovation that are worth highlighting.

Cost is measured in lives as well as dollars and cents

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost of petroleum to fuel the United States military is at least $50 per gallon to transport and protect all that fuel (and sometimes up to $400/gallon). This is already a high cost to pay. Additionally, 50% of what our military convoys carried was fuel, and for every 24 fuel convoys, the military had one casualty – resulting in about half of all American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. This burden is too high to bear. Absent a price on carbon, solutions that are too expensive to implement domestically throughout the civilian commercial and residential population end up being cost effective in this extreme environment. The Marines are already saving 5.4 millions of gallons a year in Afghanistan with innovative solar technologies which allow them to eliminate 208 truck trips and the associated risks.

Drop-in modular solutions drive innovation at home

The particular trash-to-gas technology profiled in the article might be a game changer or might not win the battle with alternative approaches.  The real story, though, is the way that the military’s need for clean energy solutions is driving energy innovation and will ultimately result in cheaper and cleaner options for all of us. This has been the tradition of military investment and innovation and there’s no reason it won’t continue to be true. The Navy has led the way in energy innovation from sail to steam and wood to coal to nuclear. Advanced drop-in biofuels like the kind promoted by our Sustainable Advanced Fuels program are the next innovation for the Navy and the Marine Corps is the leader in proving that renewable energy increases combat effectiveness. Using solar blankets lets a Marine battalion shed 700 pounds of batteries. Other innovative modular technologies include drop-in modular wind and hydro turbines, solar powered tents, and advanced efficiency technologies.

Energy Security and Waste Solutions

To the Pentagon, energy security means more than simply securing energy resources for the United States. It means ensuring that military operations can continue unabated in case of an attack on the grid or a blackout. Technologies like trash-to-fuel or other modular solutions help military installations be energy independent by creating power on-site and decreasing the amount of energy that must be imported. Additionally, in this particular example, the article points out that overseas bases in Iraq and Afghanistan are already spending millions of dollars to incinerate their waste, so creating fuels from this trash could provide several co-benefits to energy production.

Chris Bast is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared on Climate Solutions.