By Air, Land and Sea, the Military is Going Green to Save Lives and Money

09/05/2014 07:54 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

"Climate change affects the sons and the daughters who are currently stepping up to wear the uniform of our country." - Former Sen. John W. Warner

This month, one of America's most accomplished "naval persons" in recent memory will attend a well-deserved christening ceremony in his honor for a new submarine, SSN 785 John Warner. U.S. Senator John Warner is a true American hero, having served his country as a Navy enlisted sailor, a Marine lieutenant, Secretary of the Navy and United States Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia. As there are few people in this country, let alone the rest of the world, with such a resume, I am particularly encouraged by Senator Warner's latest endeavor: fighting the threat climate change presents to our armed forces and our nation.

Moving to a low carbon economy is one of the greatest challenges -- and opportunities -- that our country faces today. The imperative nature of the issue is unfortunately not obvious to all, and overemphasis from some political factions on the challenges, instead of the opportunities, continues to impede progress. It's particularly noteworthy then, that the United States Armed Forces is out in front on this issue. Perhaps it's surprising, initially, to think of a group like the U.S. Navy as a leader in clean energy, but when one considers the facts, the military has much to gain by turning to renewable sources of clean, reliable energy.

According to a 2011 report, one out of eight U.S. Army casualties in Iraq was the result of protecting fuel convoys. By simply adding solar panels at forward operating bases, troops in the field can dramatically cut the amount of diesel fuel needed to run generators, saving lives and money.

In 2012, the Department of Defense had $3 billion in unplanned expenses from 2011-2012 because of fluctuations in the price of fuel, according to the Congressional Research Service. This is an unnecessary burden to taxpayers, and underscores the need for increased energy security.

So what are DOD and the U.S. Armed Forces doing about this? While serving as a senior adviser to the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate, Senator Warner testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Power, praising military installations that are "adopting clean energy technologies" and "improving energy efficiency" for "saving taxpayer dollars and lessening risks to our troops."

The Department of Defense has a goal to derive 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, and already has close to 700 renewable projects operating across its bases, generating 7 percent of its energy needs today. The first Navy ship to deploy using a hybrid-electric propulsion system, the USS Makin Island, will save $250 million on fuel costs over its lifecycle. An energy efficiency partnership between Tinker Air Force and Honeywell will save the base $170 million over 20 years.

Of course, some critics are skeptical. Isn't "going green" too expensive they ask? Can't we just use American oil, instead of foreign oil? The fact is, all of these criticisms miss the more important point. The military isn't going green for fun or for positive public relations -- they're doing it because it saves lives and money. The fact is, oil markets are global, no matter the origin of the product. This means, for every $10 rise in the price of a barrel of oil, it costs the Department of Defense an additional $1.3 billion -- more than the entire procurement budget of the Marines. Seems to me like not going green may prove too expensive, as Middle Eastern conflicts continue to rock oil markets, despite the recent boom in U.S. drilling.

Furthermore, ACORE's National Defense and Security Initiative is working to unite the private and public sector in support of these goals and projects. The 2014 Renewable Energy for Military Installations Industry Review notes, "Renewable energy is not just a 'policy objective' for the armed forces, but also an 'operational imperative.' The deployable and decentralized energy production possibilities offered by renewable sources, and by enabling technologies like microgrids, have tremendous implications for the safety, security, and effectiveness of the military." This report shows that a public-private partnership to achieve sustainability goals is achievable, and can boost both America's security and America's businesses.

The shift in attitude toward reliable renewables and away from volatile fossil fuels truly is mission critical. From financial costs to human costs, this piece of the low carbon transition is off to a bright start thanks to leaders like Senator John Warner. But make no mistake, there is much still to be done. A serious transition to biofuels for the Navy and Air Force is key. We must invest in hardened solar panels and battery technology for the field. Our government can further partner with trusted private sector experts like Lockheed Martin on new energy solutions. And we need to stop treating renewable energy like a novelty -- it's not an alternative, it is a real deal asset class with the ability to hedge fuel costs.

As long as our national defense is at stake, energy will be a central issue. Let's go beyond "supporting the troops," and start supporting the entire United States military as they move forward with smarter energy choices.

Brower is the President & CEO of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a secure and prosperous America with clean, renewable energy.