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U.S. Department of Defense/

Matt Higgins, MEDILL


As the Defense Department's budget declines, research into economically feasible sources of renewable energy is subject to cuts

U.S. military's renewable energy development at risk

by Matt Higgins
May 15, 2013

The sequester has put into jeopardy the U.S. Department of Defense’s push towards a military that relies less on fossil fuels and more on renewable sources of energy, according to defense experts.

“A lot of energy programs have been put on hold,” Matthew Stepp, senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a defense industry think tank, said in an interview.

In the last four years, DOD has increased its energy innovation investment 43 percent to $1.5 billion.

However, according to a report by Stepp, DOD's investment in renewable energy sources is declining. “DOD’s FY2013 request is closer to FY2011 investment levels, and reflects pressure on the DOD to tighten its budget during a time of fiscal crisis in accordance with the Budget Control Act of 2011.”

A Congressional report states that the Army has a general aim of increasing the use of renewable energy, while the Air Force had a goal for all of its aircraft to use a 50/50 blend of conventional and synthetic blend fuels by 2012. The Air Force did not return repeated media requests as to whether or not it achieved that goal.

The Navy began using a blend of conventional and bio fuels in its ships and aircraft in 2012; its goal is to use alternative energy sources for half its energy consumption by 2020.

Defense industry experts point out that the current uses of renewable energy are not as vulnerable to cuts as those in research and development. Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at American Security Project, a think tank in Washington, said the effects of the sequester on long-term renewable energy sources are “unknown”.

He added, though, “biofuel is not competitive with the price of oil because the big refineries are not there, and until then, biofuel is not cost-effective.”

The current use of biofuels in the Navy came under fire from members of Congress such as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). The current cost of a barrel of crude oil is around $96, while the current cost of a barrel of algae based biofuel can be up to 10 times that amount.

The Department of Defense contends that its drive towards a “greener” military is not solely for the environmental affects, but the drive is a national security one. The DOD released in 2011 its energy strategy. Some of the factors driving the strategy are the vulnerability of petroleum truck convoys in war zones such as Afghanistan, the reliance on civilian energy infrastructure like electric grids, and the high cost and volatility of oil.

The Department of Defense has a long history of developing technologies that became part of everyday civilian use, from the Jeep to the Internet.

With a continuation of the political gridlock and partisan bickering in Washington that led to the sequester, it is unlikely that the DOD will have the money to invest in next-generation renewable technologies such as solar powered batteries for use by service personnel in the field as well as hybrid tanks, tanks that operate on electricity or a petroleum fuel, like a Toyota Prius or a Ford Fusion. 

The day when most Americans can fly on commercial jets made of synthetic fuels and use buses that rely solely on electricity may now have to wait until the generation after next.