Renewable Energy Vital to Our Nation’s Security, Economy

Renewable energy makes the United States stronger and more secure. It can help wean us from our over-dependence on oil, strengthen our economy, provide needed flexibility to our military, and improve our overall national security.

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for 36 years, I joined CNA’s Military Advisory Board (CNA MAB), a panel of some of the nation’s highest-ranking retired admirals and generals who study pressing issues that affect national security. Energy is one of those issues. The CNA MAB’s conclusion: America’s over-reliance on oil is a national security threat – economically, militarily and diplomatically. 

Our over-dependence on oil limits our foreign policy options. It ties us to regimes that aren’t always friendly to American interests. America sends nearly one billion dollars per day overseas to purchase foreign oil. It is undeniable that some of that money ends up in the hands of groups that wish to do us harm. We cannot afford to be in the position of funding both sides of the war against terrorism, from either a security or an economic standpoint. 

We cannot simply drill our way out of the oil problem. We consume a quarter of the world’s oil production, but have a much smaller percentage of known reserves. And since the world market determines the price of fossil fuels, drilling here at home won’t free us from the volatile price spikes that strain our economy and the budgets of American families and businesses. The money we spend on oil – regardless of whether it’s imported or extracted from our land or off our shores — helps perpetuate a global energy trade that lines the pockets of regimes that don’t always have our best interests in mind. 

In its latest report, the CNA MAB called for a 30 percent reduction in overall American oil consumption. Not only would this help our nation weather any serious interruption in worldwide oil flows, it would also improve our overall economic and national security. And it is doable. We can get there by using energy more efficiently, while developing and deploying renewables and alternative fuels.

The Pentagon is already working on this issue, because military leaders have seen first-hand that our over-dependence on fossil fuels makes it more likely that our troops will be sent into harm’s way, and puts our men and women in uniform at risk on the battlefield. While commanding multinational troops in Iraq’s Anbar Province during the “Anbar Awakening,” I saw how fuel convoys made attractive targets for enemy forces. Protecting oil fields and transporting fuel also diverted resources and manpower away from the military mission.  Oil was, and still is, our “Achilles’ heel” on the battlefield. A Marine Corps evaluation found that fuel and water convoys accounted for 10% of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Oil also leaves our military vulnerable to volatile price shocks. Every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil costs the Pentagon approximately $1.3 billion dollars.  This puts a tremendous strain on our military budget, especially considering the amount of oil the military consumes today. Today’s average soldier consumes 22 gallons of gas per day. And last year, the Pentagon spent over $17 billion on fuel. 

With combat effectiveness and cost savings in mind, the U.S. military is working to reduce the need for oil on the battlefield. Renewable energy is replacing diesel-powered generators on forward operating bases. The Navy is testing biofuels for planes and ships. Marines are using lightweight solar panels to power their operations. The benefits are clear: Renewable energy is saving lives. It’s also cutting down on the need for energy sources that are subject to dramatic swings in price that strain the military’s budget. 

A strong economy undergirds national security, and countries that adopt forward-looking energy policies make their economies more efficient and position businesses to earn profitable pieces of the fast-growing clean energy sector.

The U.S. military has a history of sparking innovation that ends up benefitting businesses and the U.S. economy. We’ve seen this time and time again, from GPS to computers, and from the Internet to the Boeing 747. And now the military is serving as a catalyst for energy innovation. The benefits will flow not just to the military, but also to America’s economy, and to our nation as a whole.

The renewable energy industry is creating jobs, growing the economy and enhancing military operations. That’s one reason high-ranking retired military leaders say prioritizing renewable energy is a vital part of ensuring our nation’s security and prosperity.  

Lead image: Capitol at night via Shutterstock

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Lieutenant General Richard C. Zilmer retired from the Marine Corps after 36 years as Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. He served combat tours during Lebanon Peacekeeping Operations, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, commanding multinational forces in Anbar Province during the “Anbar Awakening." He serves on CNA’s Military Advisory Board and is a frequent speaker on the intersection of energy issues and national security.

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