soldiers soluting flagThe U.S. military’s embrace of energy efficiency and renewable energy is going to be one of the great stories of the coming decade. It will be a story about technology, the changing face of warfare, geopolitics in the 21st century, and the struggle to change one of the world’s largest bureaucracies. But it will also be a great political story. For decades, the lines of warfare on climate change and clean energy have been drearily familiar and amazingly resistant to change. If it follows through on its promises, the Department of Defense — the largest consumer of oil and electricity in America — has the potential to change all that.

There have been a ton of media stories and reports on this lately, but for a comprehensive account of what the Pentagon is up to, the place to go is this new report from the Pew Project on National Security, Energy & Climate: “From Barracks to the Battlefield: Clean Energy Innovation and America’s Armed Forces.” It’s an overview of what each branch of the service is doing, what kind of technologies they are using, where they’re using them, and what kind of effect all this might have on energy innovation.

For a more technical breakdown of what it will take for DOD to fully exploit these opportunities, see Amory Lovins’ fantastic recent piece in Joint Forces Quarterly: “DOD’s Energy Challenge as Strategic Opportunity” [PDF].

This is an incredibly fertile topic. Just a few quick notes to begin with.

First, in his introduction to the Pew report, retired Republican Sen. John Warner writes:

At Marine Corps Base Quantico, we witnessed a presentation of the Experimental Forward Operating Base program, which is testing and deploying renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives in theatre in order to reduce energy consumption at forward operating locations.

Indeed! As it happens, I’m just finishing up a story on this for a magazine that shall remain nameless until I have a link to share. It’ll be in the December issue. (Ah, print speed.) What the Marines are doing is, for my money, the most interesting subplot in all this. Recall, the Marine Corps is an expeditionary force. Its overwhelming focus is on combat effectiveness in the field. In the last 10 years, the Marines have gotten more effective, but it’s come at a cost: They’ve also gotten heavier and slower. Getting fuel to the front lines is becoming extraordinarily expensive in terms of lives, tactical capability, and treasure. So the energy and efficiency stuff Marines are testing and deploying is saving lives, in a very concrete, visible, measurable way. It’s a powerful demonstration of the advantages of smart energy and it’s got nothing to do with polar bears.

Anyway, I’ll have much more to say about that when my piece comes out.

Second, the military has advantages that no other institution can match. It can focus on long-term strategy and take on the large upfront costs of renewable energy. It can single-handedly create a market and drive innovation, as it’s doing with advanced biofuels. And as virtually the only institution left that Americans trust, it can serve as an unmatched champion of the virtues of smart energy. There is nothing happening in the U.S. right now that has anything near the potential impact of this.

Third, on a more crassly political note, this could start to drive a fissure into the conservative coalition. Conservatives love the troops. And they love fossil fuels. But it may be that before too long, they’re going to have to choose. The military’s interests are going to start coming into tension with the interests of fossil-fuel companies and the politicians they sponsor.

We got a hint of things to come this summer in a battle over an obscure provision of the 2007 energy bill called Section 526. (I wrote about it here.) In short, the law said the military couldn’t consider fuels more carbon-intensive than petroleum — i.e., oil shale from Wyoming and coal-to-liquids from West Virginia. Conservative lawmakers, including conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, made a bid to overturn Section 526. The military sent representatives to argue against them and the effort went nowhere.

It wasn’t that big a deal on its own, but it might be a glimpse of more explicit tensions to come. Unconventional fossil fuels need big markets to get investment capital. Coal-to-liquids isn’t going to work without the Air Force. It will be interesting to watch the military brass continue to diverge from flag-waving red-state lawmakers on this.

Fourth, DOD is developing technologies that will allow military units to be self-sufficient when it comes to energy and water, and therefore to operate autonomously in austere circumstances. As it turns out, lots of people in the world find themselves in austere circumstances! People in poverty, in remote, rural villages, in refugee camps, in post-disaster areas — they could direly stand to be more self-sufficient. It’s possible that the military will be driving the development of technologies that could help prevent military conflict. But I think I’ll write a separate post on that.

Anyway, read Pew’s report. This stuff is a big deal.