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Six Renewable Energy Technologies the US Military Buys

The Department of Defense and the various military branches have long been the largest energy consumers in the United States. And while they're operating in foreign countries, the armed services often end up buying their energy, as electricity or fuel, at a premium.

Logically then, the military is also one of the world's largest customers for renewable energy technology, which can actually cut costs despite its seemingly high price. Of late the Pentagon has been ramping up its already-significant cleantech efforts even more, investing heavily in biofuels and solar power and aggressively testing energy saving techniques.

Here are six of the more interesting initiatives the DoD has announced of late:

  1. The Navy will launch an unmodified biofuel powered F/A 18 Super Hornet on Earth Day, flying on a 50/50 mix of petroleum and camelina biofuel. The flight is emblematic of the Navy's goal to halve its use of fossil fuels by 2020. Commercial airlines have done similar testing and found biofuels to be more efficient, compounding their carbon offset value, but the military requires a more powerful fuel for higher altitudes and performance.
  2. The Army is set to spend $2 billion on a 500 MW solar power installation at Fort Irwin, California, as a first step toward self-powered bases. Irwin Energy Security Partners, a joint venture from ACCIONA Solar Power and the Clark Energy Group, will build the project, which can potentially be expanded to 1,000MW later, on 14,000 leased acres. The Army is under a mandate to reduce power consumption by 30 percent by 2015 and to use 25 percent renewable power by 2025.
  3. The U.S. Navy is planning to launch a biofuel driven fleet by 2016. Dubbed the "Great Green Fleet", it will be complete with submarines, ships and planes. Since Naval vessels typically burn diesel fuel, and biologically based aviation fuel is already used, the largest hurdle for a GGF is likely to be supply -- a destroyer burns a lot of biodiesel.
  4. The Air Force has demonstrated biofuels in its A-10C Thunderbolt. The demonstration was the first step towards the Air Force's goal of having half its fleet running on biofuels by 2016. The Air Force also intends to certify all of its airframes for biofuel use by 2012. It is currently the largest oil consumer in the Department of Defense.
  5. In the Navy, bases are being retrofitted with LED lighting. A total of 1,084 light fixtures at the Ventura County base will be replaced, reducing energy consumption by 60 percent at these locations. Maintenance costs, greenhouse gases and power consumption will all be reduced. The entire project will save 228 metric tons of CO2 over its lifespan and save the Navy $45,500 in utilities. It will have paid for itself in under three years - leaving nine years of savings before the bulbs are projected to die.
  6. Army tents are no longer lit by kerosene lamps or flickering incandescents. Even CFLs are soon to be out dated in Army shelters. Techshot has earned a $328,000 one year contract to develop field-ready LED lights. The unit is expected to last almost 100,000 hours, making them cheap on a lifecycle basis. The DoD spends nearly $40 million on fluorescent lights annually.
Of course, the armed services have also run ahead of national opinion in identifying climate change as a national security risk, both due to the impacts of changing weather changes and the conflicts between countries that could result. Assuming the top brass actually believes that assessment, the military has a powerful motivation to keep up the efforts -- two wars abroad have dampened the military's passion for fighting.
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