Will President Obama Send Green Marines to Darwin?

President Barack Obama was in Australia this week and upset China and Indonesia with the annoucement of an increased miliary presence in this country, including 2500 US Marines to train and provision equipment in Darwin.

When the U.S. Marine Corp establish themselves a new home in Darwin, they will bring some seriously green equipment and ideas to our shores. This is because in the three years of his Presidency, Barack Obama has actively led the U.S. Department of Defense to embrace renewable energy and a strategic awareness of climate change.

The officer in charge of greening the marines is Colonel Bob “Brutus” Charette, a career soldier. As Director of E2O, the Expeditionary Energy Office, Colonel Charette has been on the road in 2011 with a fascinating presentation that shows how seriously America’s defense force is fighting its fatal addiction to oil. The Colonel jokes that when his commander told him to establish the E2O he said that his only qualification is wasting energy, as a jet pilot and commander.

The Marine Corp has been given the task of reducing its energy intensity 30 percent by 2015 relative to a 2003 baseline (NREL 2011, PDF). Meanwhile in Canberra’s Parliament House, or Planet Quacko as it is affectionately known, there has been intense debate about a miniscule five percent carbon emissions cut by 2020. The USMC also has an objective to increase the percentage of renewable electrical energy consumed to 25 percent by 2025. 

The impact of these energy goals is to make the marines faster (“Lighten load” as Charette puts it), more frugal (“reduce footprint”) and thus more lethal (“more tooth less tail”). 

In some deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, fuel demands account for more than 60 percent of convoys. Minimising these trips can save fuel, energy, carbon emissions and lives. Renewable energy substitutes for conventional batteries can reduce the cost of remote operations. Colonel Charette provides a graphic case study comparing the batteries used in a three-day company patrol in 2001 to 2011. In 2001, 54 batteries, worth $4,000 provided 160 Watts of electricity. In 2001, 754 batteries were needed, providing 1255 Watts, for a cost of $117,000—a price increase of more than 2400 percent. LE: Could be cut to save 66 words.

Over the past year the E2O has run a systems analysis of energy use, started cultural change programs, investigated potential useful technologies and tested equipment at bases in America. The program is designated EXFOB or Experimental Forward Operating Base. One test involved sending a company out on a three-week patrol without any battery resupply. Two patrols were reliant on renewable energy only.

US defense policy follows a rolling 4 year planning cycle, called the Quadrennial Defence Review. The latest review (2010-2014) has integrated climate change into the strategic landscape at all levels, as a ‘threat multiplier’. The idea is that global warming increases the adversity of all scenarios, increasing uncertainty and hence, risk. 

The other half of the equation is security of energy supply. The DOD is the largest user of energy in the United States. It makes up 80 percent of the US Government’s total energy consumption. To maintain its ability to project power in an age of declining oil supplies and carbon constraints the DOD has embarked on a service-wide effort to measure and reduce its carbon and energy bootprint. 

Systems that pass the muster in training environments graduate to field testing at forward operating bases in Afghanistan. One of these battle-approved systems is SPACES—a solar-powered battery charging kit that is used by Marine forces rotated through Afghanistan.   

Marines who took part in the EXFOB exercises gave glowing reviews of SPACES and other technologies such as PowerShades, fabric field shelters embedded with solar PV cells. PowerShades are light, portable structures that provide shade for soldiers during the day, while generating upto 2 kW of energy for ventiliation fans, lights, computers, communications and battery recharging. 

Sergeant Gregory Wenzel took part in the Mojave Viper EXFOB exercise that tested the PowerShades said,  “As far as disadvantages, I really haven’t seen any… You don’t need any fuel, it’s much quieter than a generator but can still power any electrical asset you need.”

The U.S. military is proving what clean energy advocates have been saying for years: renewables are for winners, fossil fuels are for fools. Australia’s nuclear fan club and fossil fuel lobbyists frequently complain that solar is no good when the sun goes down. Tell that to the marines.

When we argue the case for renewables on the grounds of security and survival, the climate denialists and delay merchants are bombed back to the stone age.

The Centre for a New American Security is the leading think-tank working on climate security issues. In a paper in 2010, Fueling the Future Force, CNAS proposed that the DOD should ensure that it can operate all of its systems on non-petroleum fuels by 2040 and works actively towards this goal immediately. 

To get a clear sense of the urgency of the issue, consider the development lag in a big system, such as the next generation of Ballistic Missile Submarines, the SSBN (X).  Scoping for the SSBN (X) began in 2007, yet based on the Navy’s own projections the 1st sub will not begin procurement until 2019 and will not hit the water until 2028.

The last SSBN (X) will be procured around 2040 and will have an service life out to 2080. Do you think our civilisation will still be running on oil like it is now, in 2080? No is the correct answer. If you said yes, then its 20 push up for you, soldier!

If only Australia’s political class were less distracted by Canberra gossip and opinion polls, they might start reporting on the strategic advantages of renewables.

The U.S. military’s cleantech push has spillover benefits for society. On the technological level, U.S. military R&D, field-testing and procurement policies are already driving diverse streams of cleantech innovation. On the political level, the climate security agenda shifts the ‘frame’ in which we understand renewable energy to one of self sufficiency and technological progress.

When the case for renewables is made on the grounds of national security, the arguments of climate denialists and delay merchants are bombed back to the Stone Age. Labor Member for Wakefield Nick Champion has put the climate and security challenge in simple terms

Climate change sceptics have a profoundly irresponsible approach to our national security because their ideology does not allow them to acknowledge the potential threats we may face, and their denial of the evidence could leave our nation unprepared for a hostile and uncertain future. Make no mistake; if you’re a self-confessed climate sceptic then you’re as soft as butter on Australia’s defence.

In the American and Australian simplistic media-political landscape, “green” is the ultimate soft issue and war is the ultimate hard issue. But as the U.S. Marine Corps demonstrates, energy conservation and renewable energy are now critical national security concerns. 

Previous articleMeanwhile, Wind Industry Sees Big Gains – Will it Last?
Next article“Brown is Green!”—Sunlight Solar Energy to Install Solar Panels at Brown University
Dan Cass is strategist at The Australia Institute and an honorary associate at Sydney Business School. He has advised international and Australian energy companies, and is now on the advisory board of Solar Head of State and was a director of Hepburn Wind. @DanJCass

No posts to display