US Department of Defense and the Rocky Mountain Institute: Energy security makes strange bedfellows

Solar panel installation at US military base

What do a famous environmental scientist and the US Department of Defense have to offer each other?

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has promoted energy systems based on efficiency and renewables for close to three decades. He offers the US DoD energy consulting services that will save billions of dollars and thousands of lives. The US DoD has the world’s best funded research and development, the world’s biggest vehicle fleet and huge garrisons that can serve as models for energy efficient cities. It’s an energy revolutionary’s dream gig.  

The cost of oil to the US DoD is huge in terms of blood, effectiveness and money. At a recent webinar, Lovins stated that the US DoD pays $2 billion/day for direct oil costs and over a trillion a year in price volatility, military interventions and economic damage. Conveys delivering oil to outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan are attractive targets. They put soldiers’ lives at risk and threatens missions success. Over one thousand soldiers have died in conveys. Conveys frequently require air cover which increases the cost of delivered oil to $100 to $400/gallon. Ninety five per cent of convoyed oil is used to run generators with 10 per cent efficiency for air conditioning in tents. Lovins recommended to US DoD full cost accounting of delivered oil to drive strategic shifts.


Lovins also recommended two new military strategies: endurance and resilience. Endurance means saving fuel to extend operations by protecting the military forces, increasing their range, saving money and moving people from delivering fuel to “pulling the trigger.” Lovins views endurance as a key to effectiveness in remote, dispersed war operations. For example, foam insulation sprayed on desert tents in addition to air conditioning saved $1 billion/year in Iraq. An inspection of a war ship for heavy items found enough unnecessary weight to reduce fuel costs by $1 billion. Portable photovoltaics can replace oil use for generating electricity.


The US DoD now links energy efficiency to security. It has personnel responsible for energy usage and rewards for energy savings. A friendly rivalry between branches of the military is taking hold.


The second strategy, resilience, means protecting electricity systems from dangers such as attacks on transmission, centralized power plants or interruption of fuel delivery. Lovins recommended netted, islandable microgrids: several transmission lines to and from power sources and end users so that if one line fails, others can still deliver electricity. For example, ninety bases have renewable energy sources that feed into the grid but they don’t have “islandable” transmission lines that could provide power to the base from its own renewable sources if the external grid went down. Bases are upgrading their transmissions for greater resilience.


Paul Hora, the Energy Awareness Manager at Fort Bragg North Carolina, spoke at the Webinar on efficiency at military bases. Fort Bragg houses over 300,000 people, making it the fourth largest city in North Carolina. North Carolina sells electricity that is 60per cent from coal for five cents per kilowatt hour. Hora pointed out the destructive dilemma of externalized costs: an energy source with deadly climate consequences at a price that can’t be beat because it doesn’t include mitigating those consequences.


Still, Fort Bragg spends $43 million/year on energy and takes efficiency and renewables seriously. A new energy staff of 6 people works to fulfill requirements that include: LEED certification of new buildings; education in efficiency practices; monitoring of buildings energy use; investigation of renewable energy options such as micro hydro and solar; efficiency retrofitting of older buildings; and construction of central energy plants (also known as Neighbourhood Energy Utilities or District Heating).

Military technology that could trickle down to civilian society includes lighter materials for vehicles, portable photovoltaics, portable electronics, and lighter batteries (so that soldiers don’t break their legs parachuting in with them). It could even lead to an American national policy that recognizes the security threat of fossil fuel use.


It’s inevitable that strange bedfellows like Amory Lovins and the US DoD would collaborate on mapping a way out of the climate crisis: the crisis affects everyone and solving it requires everyone's participation. But it’s disorienting. In a Fort Bragg Energy Security Video, the garrison commander states, “Anything that can reduce our requirement and need for fossil fuels in general and petroleum products in particular helps makes us a more secure nation.”


A Captain tells how he doesn’t feel comfortable on the world’s most dangerous roads leading a convoy of 10,000 gallons of oil. The subtext: I’m risking my life for your energy so be responsible about that. The video closes with an army director of public works saying, “If someone doesn’t understand the importance of energy security, then (that person) is an idiot.” He sounded like a frustrated climate activist.

While disparate entities gather around the banner of efficiency and renewable energy, where’s Canada?  The government website claims that the US  “views energy security in terms of access to supplies” and Canada is a “consistent and secure supplier.” But the US DoD is boasting about its commitment to efficiency and renewables, not about its access to Canada’s high carbon oil sands.

What if the US DoD succeeds in its goal of kicking the oil habit? What if its technology is rapidly scalable and US civil society kicks the oil habit as well? It’s clearly in their best interest: renewables and efficiency offer more security and true energy independence. Will the Harper government continue to beat the drum for dirty, destabilizing oil while the US moves toward better solutions? Or will Harper act now and prepare Canadians to keep pace with the US in the race to fill renewable energy and efficient technology markets?

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