Nature's Secrets

The military goes green

CORRESPONDENTAugust 1, 2011 

Failure is an opportunity.

Tao Te Ching

The U.S. military is moving aggressively to reduce its energy "bootprint."

The Department of Defense is our country's largest single consumer of energy, using more than 300,000 barrels of oil per day. With an armored Humvee averaging only 4 miles per gallon, and with a gallon of fuel costing $400 to reach our troops in Afghanistan, the military budget is crippled by energy inefficiencies. But new initiatives for military installations include solar power units, purifying stagnant water, solar tents and LED lights. At Fort Drum, N.Y., one of the world's largest solar installations currently heats the base. A fleet of new clean-energy naval vessels, dubbed "Prius of the oceans," will save millions of taxpayer dollars. The military's goal is to achieve 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.

Fort Bragg has a dedicated chief of the environmental division, David Heins, whose job is to save energy and money for the military. A recent report, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), outlines military strategies for an uncertain world, with clean energy technologies and climate change adaptations highlighted as key priorities.

In a new PBS series funded by the National Science Foundation called "Earth - The Operator's Manual," host Dr. Richard Allee visits the new solar-cooled tents in Afghanistan and explains how such energy efficiencies at military bases in the Middle East can save lives as well as money. More than 1,000 Americans have been killed on military missions delivering fossil fuels to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petroleum convoys are obvious targets as they cross the desert.

Steve Anderson, former military senior logistician for Iraq, recently spoke at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh about the importance of greening the military: "Nine years into that war, (our troops) are living more or less as Alexander the Great's men did 23 centuries ago, in often dangerous and always inefficient tents and shacks." He went on to note that it costs taxpayers about $66 million per day to air-condition the war zones using fossil fuels, but expressed hope that new technologies will change operations soon.

The military's QDR also acknowledges that climate change poses an enormous threat to our national security. Sea level rise, warming temperatures and glacier melts will foster instability in some of the world's most volatile regions. Over 150 of America's coastal military installations are at risk from sea level rise and the inevitable political struggles caused by droughts, famine, floods, forest diebacks and disease.

Are we equipped to deal with the catastrophic consequences of droughts, famine, floods, forest diebacks and disease on a global scale? The emerging new technologies developed to "green the military" may have far greater impact on global stability than our existing arsenals of guns and missiles.

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online:

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