Clean Energy Saves Lives, Makes Us "Better War-Fighters": Secretary of U.S. Navy

An Honorable German via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Some of the most powerful voices in support of clean energy come not from starry-eyed entrepreneurs of solar start-ups or environmental advocacy groups—but from the U.S. military. Often at odds with the political conservatives who claim to have their interests at heart, the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy have all taken major steps to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and to expand the application of cleaner technologies.

Most recently, Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, announced the purchase at least 1 Gigawatt of renewable power. And yesterday, in a sobering interview at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, Mabus ticked off the myriad reasons the military is investing heavily in clean energy.

"We're getting more efficient," he announced upfront, "mainly because of the price spikes petroleum is subject to."

When conflict broke out in Libya last year, oil prices jumped, Mabus said, and they're rising again now. These kind of unpredictable shocks put an acute strain on the military's operating budget. "It's the shocks. We can't budget for that. We don't have anywhere else to get that money." There's nothing they can do but shoulder the cost, because oil is a globally traded commodity. And it means other programs suffer.

"So we train less, we invest less," he said. "We're making a choice between paying for fuel" or bettering the Navy. Which is why the Navy, along with other arms of the military, are now among the world's biggest investors in clean energy.

Mabus discussed the "great green fleet" which will make its debut this July. It features a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine, and all the aircraft and the surface fleet will run on a 50/50 blend of biofuels.

"We've already bought this," Mabus says. "It might be the largest purchase of biofuels ever." But it doesn't end there.

"We're doing solar, we're doing wind, we're doing geothermal," Mabus said. "We're doing wave power. We're doing it to become more efficient. Mainly to be better war-fighters."

The fact that this is agenda-free cold calculus often seems to escape critics of clean energy—the military is doubling down on clean energy because it helps them cut costs, save lives, and prevent future conflict. Period. There's no vision of a hand-holding, pollution-free world involved here; there's a vision of a U.S. military kicking as much ass as possible. To wit:

"The marines have embraced this more than every other service, because it saves lives," Mabus says. "For every 50 fuel convoys in Afghanistan, we lose a life." Using solar arrays instead of generators "saves them 700 pounds of battery load—and they don't have to be resupplied. This makes us so much better at what we do, it allows us to better protect the country. We are doing this for national security, for energy security—and to be better war fighters."

There isn't a whiff of ideological grandstanding to be found in Mabus's frank proclamations: "I'm agnostic on stuff like peak oil. I'm looking for a steady alternative to oil. I know that we don't have enough oil in the United States to meet our needs."

Mabus also took a moment to politely push back against critics of the Navy's clean energy policies, and those who have shown skepticism at its embrace of clean technology.

"These policies are becoming part of the culture. The Navy has always been at the forefront of energy technology. We went from sail to coal," he said. "We pioneered nuclear power. Every single time we did it, there were naysayers. every single time they were wrong."

Near the end of the talk, the moderator asked Mabus about the risks of investing in clean energy, and he replied bluntly.

"The biggest risk is if we don't. We would never let the countries we buy fossil fuels from build our ships, but we let them control what they run on."

And he sees a similar urgency in the need to develop homegrown clean energy tech, and to manufacture it here.

"The risk of not acting, the risk of waiting while other countries beat us in the alternative fuel game—I don't want to trade one form of foreign energy for another. I don't want to trade oil overseas for biofuels or solar panels overseas. We don't want to fall behind in this emerging technology. We don't want to trade one form of dependence for another."

Tags: Clean Energy | United States