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The promise and peril of a military shift to biofuels

soldier filling tankFill 'er up -- with biofuels? (Photo by U.S. Army Africa)

The U.S. military's "going green" is not a singular phenomenon. There are several different things going on under that rubric, with different rationales and different effects. Some of them make such obvious strategic, economic, and environmental sense that no one really can, or does, oppose them. But one in particular -- the biofuels initiative -- is much less clear-cut. Before discussing that, though, let's try to pick apart and categorize the green initiatives underway at the Department of Defense.

First off, there are attempts to reduce fossil-fuel use in the theater of war, mainly Iraq and Afghanistan, through more efficiency (insulated tents, LED lights) and the use of distributed renewables. These efforts directly enhance battlefield effectiveness. They make fighting units lighter and faster. They reduce the need for fuel convoys, saving lives and money. They are unimpeachable -- even Republicans in Congress will hesitate to second-guess the military's tactical logistics decisions.

Second, there are attempts to make U.S. military bases more independent of civilian power grids, which are vulnerable to accidents, blackouts, or attacks. In part this is being done by generating power on-site. Solar power for bases has become far more affordable, thanks to plummeting solar-panel prices, but there are also experiments underway with wind, geothermal, and biomass. Bases are also increasing energy and waste efficiency and experimenting with smart microgrids. These efforts seem somewhat more vulnerable to political attack, but I've not yet heard of any.

Third, there are efforts to find new liquid fuels for the military's vast land, air, and water fleets. This one is the biggie, from the standpoint of sheer quantities of energy and money. It's the most difficult. And it's also the most controversial, in terms of Republican opposition and environmental risk.

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Republicans try to force the military to use dirty energy it doesn’t want

Photo by the U.S. Army.

The U.S. military recognizes that dependence on fossil fuels is a threat to U.S. strategic influence and its own operational effectiveness. With that in mind, it's trying to make itself lighter and leaner, reducing energy consumption at bases and on the battlefield while working to develop fuel alternatives for its ship and plane fleets. Republicans have been quietly grumbling about this for a while; now they are openly opposing it. The GOP wastes no opportunity to boast of "supporting the troops," but that support apparently ends where Big Oil contributions begin.

Let's look at a few examples, shall we?

GOP tries to block use of cleaner fuels

Last week, the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee proposed a new Pentagon budget. Tucked away inside it was a provision that would prohibit the Department of Defense from buying any alternative fuels that cost more than conventional fossil fuels. TPM has the story.

Slate's Fred Kaplan laments that this provision would kill the $12 million "Green Strike Group" program the Navy is running, which would field a strike group running entirely on biofuels (and a nuclear-powered carrier) for a naval exercise in June. The Navy hopes to have an entire "Great Green Fleet" in the water by 2016.

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Could Romney’s scorn for wind power hurt him in the heartland?

Photo by Eric Tastad.

On Thursday, President Obama will visit TPI Composites, a wind manufacturer in Newton, Iowa (population, 15,254). There, he will reiterate his support for the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a federal support program that has helped drive wind's rapid expansion in the U.S. The PTC is now in peril, as Congress appears unlikely to renew it when it expires at the end of this year. The loss of the PTC would put tens of thousands of current jobs -- and almost 100,000 future jobs [PDF] -- at risk.

Newton's experience is illustrative, so let's recount a little history.

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U.S. military kicks more ass by using less fossil-fuel energy

soldier with solar panelGoing solar in Afghanistan. (Photo by U.S. Marine Corps)

This is my contribution to a dialogue on the military and clean energy being hosted by National Journal.

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To understand the promise of renewable energy for the U.S. military, it helps to start as far from Washington, D.C., as possible. (This is true for most forms of understanding.) Start far from the politicians, even from the military brass, far from the rooms where big-money decisions are made, far out on the leading edge of the conflict, with a small company of Marines in Afghanistan's Sangin River Valley.

Not long ago, for a three-day mission out of a forward operating base in Afghanistan, each Marine would have humped between 20 and 35 pounds of batteries. One of the reasons Marines are so lethal in such small numbers today is that they are constantly connected by radios and computers. But radios and computers require a constant supply of batteries, brought by convoy over some of the deadliest roads on earth and then piled on the backs of Marines in highly kinetic environments.

In late 2010, India Company, from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, tried something new. They packed Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy Systems, or SPACES -- flexible solar panels, 64 square inches, that weigh about 2.5 pounds each. One 1st Lieutenant from India 3/5 later boasted that his patrol shed 700 pounds.

"We stayed out for three weeks," he said, "and didn't need a battery resupply once."

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Buzzword decoder: Your election-year guide to environmental catchphrases

bees saying buzzwordsDon't expect the environment to be in the spotlight in political campaigns this year. The economy will be the star in 2012, with the culture wars singing backup.

Still, environmental issues are getting talked about, often obliquely as part of larger discussions about energy -- though the words don't always mean what you might think they mean. And the words politicians don't say can tell you as much as the words they do.

Here's a guide to energy and environmental buzzwords you'll be hearing, or not, this election year:

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We’re half-assing the clean-energy transition

Photo by Hans Gerwitz.

The International Energy Agency recently issued its annual progress report [PDF] on clean energy. Here's the five-cent version:

The transition to a low-carbon energy sector is affordable and represents tremendous business opportunities, but investor confidence remains low due to policy frameworks that do not provide certainty and address key barriers to technology deployment. Private sector financing will only reach the levels required if governments create and maintain supportive business environments for low-carbon energy technologies. [my emphasis]

Progress is inadequate -- relative to the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C -- on virtually every low-carbon technology except onshore wind and solar (click for a larger version of this chart):

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Modern-day DeLorean? Airplane runs on trash

Photo by Paul O'Donnell.

One man's trash is another man's airplane fuel.

Adventure-seeker Andy Pag aims to obtain funding and become the first person to fly a trash-fueled plane from one end of the U.K. to the other. His aircraft, a microlight plane, will be powered by gasoline made from un-recyclable plastics like bags and packaging.

The fuel is made by a British company using Fischer–Tropsch synthesis--a process of making synthetic fuel that dates back to before WWII. Pag says the fuel is worth highlighting because it produces limited CO2, and reduces the volume of plastics that otherwise would go to landfills.

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Clean energy: Still a wedge issue that favors Democrats

wedge heel shoesOh, wait, not this kind of wedge?

In his much remarked-upon interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said some (in my view fairly tepid and passive) things about climate change. What interested me more is the very first bit:

Let's talk about the campaign. Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. ...

But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream – and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. ... You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Doesn't all of that kind of talk and behavior during the primaries define the party and what they stand for?

I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

Obama's contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I'm not sure how many genuine "wedge issues" there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

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Chinese farmer builds AMAZING solar- and wind-powered car

Electric vehicles are great and all, but they’re not exactly practical for everyone. Like, how’s a farmer in rural China going to a) afford a pricey green car and b) get enough access to electrical outlets and vehicle charging stations?

Well, if he’s Tang Zhengping from Beijing’s Tangzhou Wanji Yongle Town, he’ll build his own -- and it’ll be AWESOME.

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Donald Trump still blowing hot air about Scottish wind farms

Scotland’s plan to build offshore wind turbines would curb climate change, reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil, and create thousands of jobs. But Donald Trump don’t give a f***.

Trump appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s economy, energy, and tourism committee today to speak out against the country’s plan to build offshore wind turbines. His argument? Eleven wind turbines -- located a full 1.5 miles from land -- will “ruin Scotland’s tourism.”