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Environmental defense

Increasingly, the military sees energy efficiency -- and moving away from oil -- as part of its national security mission. Does that mean the Pentagon is turning green?

Over the next three years, the US Air Force plans to add an important new class of vehicles to its fleet. They can't fly. They have no weaponry. They look like golf carts, and none of them can break 25 miles per hour.

What they can do is save fuel. Although the Air Force hasn't decided exactly which models to buy, some of the candidates are electric-powered, others run on ethanol, and even those that use traditional gasoline boast fuel economies between 40 and 50 miles per gallon. By 2010, the Air Force promises, it will have replaced nearly a third of the cars and trucks currently used on bases to transport airmen and supplies.

These "low-speed vehicles" are just one part of a broad effort by the American military to drastically reduce its use of traditional fossil fuels at a time when global oil markets are unstable, gas prices are approaching historic highs, and climate change is increasingly a matter of bipartisan political concern. In scale and coordination the effort is not the Manhattan Project some critics say is needed. But as a loose collection of initiatives, it is impressive in its breadth, encompassing the everyday and the exotic: from energy efficient windows and light bulbs and geothermal plants to research into jet fuel that can be made from weeds, portable generators that run on plastic waste, and even a fleet of satellites to harvest solar power from space.

It also, some analysts say, could have a dramatic impact on the broader effort to move society away from fossil fuels. The American military has a storied record as a technological innovator: the computer, the commercial jetliner, and the Internet originated from military research and transformed modern life. And with billions to spend it can provide a major proving ground for new energy technologies developed in the private sector.

"In terms of alternative energy, the Department of Defense is big enough, in certain sectors, to be the tipping point," says Stuart Funk, an energy specialist at LMI who was once the Pentagon official responsible for fuel operations.

The effort has its skeptics. Even supporters are quick to point out that the Department of Defense is unlikely to accomplish much unless it better organizes its far-flung initiatives. And environmentalists are dubious of an institution that has more often been an adversary. They point out, for example, that some of the ideas -- such as increasing the use of coal to make synthetic fuel -- could actually be more environmentally damaging than the status quo.

"It's a little bit early to tell whether the Pentagon is going to be a force for progress or not on the issue of protecting the climate," said David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Indeed, the Pentagon's central goal is not to align the military with the environmental movement. It is to reduce costs -- the Pentagon spent $13.5 billion on energy last year -- and cut the dependence of its fighting forces on foreign energy. A recent Pentagon-commissioned study by LMI described the American military's reliance on oil as "unsustainable in the long term," the Globe reported earlier this month.

Still, the new energy consciousness coincides with a growing conviction among military and intelligence analysts that the planet's changing environment, and the country's reliance on oil, are potent national security issues. And some voices within the military are starting to espouse a worldview -- emphasizing the limits on natural resources and the volatility of ecosystems -- that is decidedly environmentalist in tone.

"Clean technologies have become strategic, in part because the military, like the rest of us, is realizing how fragile the environment is," said Kenan Sahin, CEO and founder of Tiax, a Cambridge-based technology development firm working on several projects with the Department of Defense.

Whether that means the military is becoming environmentalist, or simply a smarter fighting machine, may be a distinction that makes less and less of a difference.

Early last year, in a paper titled "War Without Oil: A Catalyst for True Transformation," an Air Force lieutenant colonel named Michael Hornitschek laid out his vision of the super-efficient American military of 2050. Army and Marine vehicles would run on electric hybrid engines or fuel cells. Warship hulls would be nano-engineered to make them lightweight and more fuel efficient. Surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft would be solar-powered, and individual soldiers would carry pocket hydrogen fuel cells. Expeditionary bases would be capable of generating their own energy from wind, sunlight, biofuel, or garbage.

Such a fighting force has an element of "Star Wars fantasy," Hornitschek wrote. But the ideas in the paper are not that far from projects already being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in conjunction with university laboratories and companies like DuPont, GE, and Hewlett Packard. For one project, DARPA is trying to develop a substitute jet fuel derived from plants such as palm trees and jatropha shrubs. Currently, the Air Force is the largest consumer of energy in the Department of Defense, and every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil raises its annual costs by $60 million, according to Kevin Billings, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary for Environment, Safety and Occupational Health.

Another major challenge is the sometimes nightmarish logistics of supplying energy to soldiers in the field. Fuel convoys in Iraq, for example, are favorite targets of insurgent attacks. And with troops increasingly equipped with high-tech devices like satellite phones, GPS locators, and night-vision goggles, energy isn't merely a matter of gasoline -- batteries are also a vital military commodity. A typical soldier carries 10 to 27 pounds of batteries, according to DARPA. To help reduce the load on the military's energy supply lines, DARPA is exploring longer-lasting fuel cells to replace current batteries, as well as technologies, like high-efficiency solar cells and even mobile generators that run on discarded plastic packaging, to allow more power to be generated in the field.

Technologies like these would have uses far beyond the battlefield. Higher efficiency solar panels could make solar power more cost-competitive with other forms of energy, and better fuel cells could be used for everything from storing energy generated from solar arrays and wind farms to freeing cellphones from the need to be charged as often.

Cheaper, more reliable jet fuel would no doubt be a boon in the private sector, especially the airline industry, for whom fuel costs are a leading headache. And the same technologies may have applications for other fuels as well.

The first small samples of jet biofuels will be available in six to nine months, according to Doug Kirkpatrick, the DARPA technologist in charge of the solar cell and jet fuel projects. He also predicted "fairly dramatic progress" on the solar cells in the coming months.

But independent energy analysts say the military's primary contribution to clean energy is more likely to be as a customer than an inventor. One of the difficulties for new energy technologies is the volatility of oil prices: an energy alternative that makes good economic sense when oil is $60 a barrel becomes a financial disaster if oil drops to $30 a barrel, and this makes companies reluctant to invest in such innovations. But the military remains the country's single largest energy consumer, and it is willing to pay extra for reliability.

Ernest Moniz, a professor of physics at MIT and a former undersecretary of energy, points to so-called synthetic fuels, made from natural gas, coal, biomass or oil shale, as an example of a field where the military might nurture a technology that the market has so far rejected. "The market certainly has not produced any significant amount of those fuels because, frankly, they cost too much," he says. By providing a market for these alternatives, he said, the military could encourage the technology to develop and, eventually, help drive down the costs as the effort matures.

Already, the Air Force has shown interest in "synfuels," testing B-52 bombers on a 50-50 blend of natural-gas-based synfuel and traditional jet fuel. By 2010, the Air Force plans for its entire air fleet to be modified to run on such blends. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, has been trying to procure forklifts powered by fuel cells, according to Funk of LMI. Thanks to its massive warehousing and distribution network, the military is one of the world's leading purchasers of such equipment, and Funk argues that this one decision could help spur the adoption of fuel cell technology.

But Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and cofounder of the Congressional Defense Energy Working Group, said he would like to see the Pentagon be far more aggressive in its pursuit of new energy technologies. The Department of Defense, he argues, could afford to spend far more than the $535 million it spent on energy research programs last year. And it still doesn't have an official whose job it is to head its disparate energy initiatives.

"There's been a change in thinking, but an inadequate change in action," he said. However, he said, even the change in thinking is bound to have a positive impact.

The broader question for the future, many analysts say, is whether the military's various initiatives will turn out to be a true environmental effort. Because the Pentagon's mission is to win wars, not fight global warming, it will pursue energy sources that environmentalists abhor.

As David Victor, director of the program on energy and sustainable development at Stanford University, points out, one of the new fuels the military has shown particular interest in is coal-based synfuel, which would be far dirtier than oil. The Air Force, which is leading the effort, has pledged that it will not phase in the use of such fuel until it has developed technology to capture the carbon dioxide released during the production process.

The shapers of the Pentagon's energy policy admit that their primary consideration isn't environmental impact but security of supply. While environmental concerns play a role, says Alan Shaffer, director of plans and programs for the Pentagon's office of defense research and engineering, reliability is paramount.

"When America calls 9-1-1 for the military, we don't want to have to tell America, 'Gee, we'd like to come but we're out of power,"' Shaffer says.

Still, if the military can give a boost to clean alternative energy technologies, its motivation doesn't much matter. The military's new sensitivity to fuel scarcity may also help reframe the politics of global warming.

In March, the Army War College held a conference on the national security implications of a warming planet. Separately, in April a group of 11 retired senior generals released a report arguing that climate change, by playing havoc with water supplies, weather patterns, and agriculture, would be a force for global instability in coming years. And under a bipartisan proposal expected to easily win congressional approval, both the Pentagon and the CIA will be required to consider the effects of climate change in evaluating threats to the country.

"Anytime the Pentagon says that a nonmilitary issue has national security implications," says Israel, "it gets instant credibility."

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail