The U.S. Military: The Big Green Machine Gets Even Greener

The military has a history of innovation that eventually goes mainstream. The most notable example, of course, is the Internet. Developed for the military, it revolutionized society. Department of Defense support also helped forge commercial development of global positioning systems and semiconductors.

Green energy and microgrids could be next on the list of advancements to expand beyond military bases and the battlefield. In a new report and a video, PEW Charitable Trusts says the emergence of clean energy and increasingly competitive alternative energy sources "presents DoD (Department of Defense) with opportunities for saving lives and money in the years ahead."

There are challenges, such as an austerity movement (although it could be argued that a strong clean-energy program actually saves money) and fallout from the Solyndra bankruptcy, which sidetracked an ambitious plan to attach solar to put solar panels on military housing. Whether the program survives remains to be seen.

Still, the military is moving ahead on other fronts. And it is not alone. Big Business, led by Walmart, Google and others, is pushing on. Walmart is particularly interesting; the world's largest retailer wouldn't be pursuing such an ambitious program if it wasn't profitable. If you want to know more about Walmart's efforts, read this new book.

In fact, there is so much going on that the phrase "industrial revolution" keeps coming up in regard to green energy. Economist Jeremy Rifkin is the latest, calling it "the third Industrial Revolution."

The military's efforts certainly are a catalyst. Using alternative fuel to power jets and other vehicles can sharply reduce dependence upon oil. The Department of Defense is the largest single consumer of energy in the United States, gobbling more than 375,000 barrels of oil per day in 2009 - more than all but 35 nations.

Liquid petroleum accounts for about 75 percent of the military's annual energy consumption, and more than $11 billion of its annual power bill. So, electric vehicles and biofuel such as algae and switchgrass can save millions of dollars. Did you know base leaders at Fort Bliss, Texas, drive tiny electric cars made of recycled plastic? Leave the Hummer home, baby!

Recently, a company of Marines operated their equipment solely on solar and battery power for 192 hours, saving eight gallons of fuel per day. And it is quieter, making it safer to operate on the battlefield.

From the report: "The Navy has also made progress on hybrid systems for ships. The USS Makin Island was commissioned in 2009 with a hybrid electric propulsion system that will save more than $250 million in fuel costs over the life of the ship. Looking forward, a hybrid electric drive system will be tested and installed as a proof of concept on the USS Truxtun. The Navy estimates successful testing will result in fuel savings of up to 8,500 barrels per year."

Just as alternative fuel enhances the security of energy supplies, self-contained microgrids and other smart-energy technology can protect the military's 500,000 buildings (totaling 2.2 billion square feet) at 500 major installations from commercial power outages.

Pew cites market analysts who project the military will account for almost 15 percent of the microgrid market in 2013, and that military implementation of microgrids will grow by 375 percent to $1.6 billion annually in 2020.

The Pew report is fascinating, and there is much more than recapped here. After reading it, I'm left with this thought: The influence of the military combined with growing interest in energy efficiency and sustainability by Big Business and others equals the start of a powerful movement that likely will pick up speed as awareness increases.

Photo of soldiers deploying a solar banket by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul D. Williams, US Navy)