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Operation Free says the military's investment in clean energy will keep America safe

It's tempting to think of Operation Free as a David challenging the U.S. military's Goliath.

The group of vets and national security experts formed in 2009 as a campaign of the Truman National Security Project, to raise awareness of, and advocate for, legislation that encourages investments in clean technology, with emphasis on protecting and expanding the military's investments in green tech.

But the organization's Brett Hunt, a 33-year-old former Army captain who served in the invasion of Iraq, says the military doesn't need to be convinced of the benefits of clean energy — it's already on board. Rather, he says, Operation Free spends most of its time convincing legislators that clean energy saves lives and protects the country.

"In Afghanistan," Hunt says, referring to reports that are a few years old, "one in every 24 [fuel] convoys sustains casualties ... So this is literally putting people at risk today."

Hunt, who leads Operation Free in his home state of Arizona and is working to expand its reach into Colorado, says that's not the only problem with an oil-dependent military. There are also price fluctuations, threats to major suppliers and the possibility that climate change could lead to uprisings around the world. Operation Free has used those types of arguments to defend everything from the use of biofuels in the military to the national wind production tax credit.

Operation Free isn't a lonely soldier in advocating for clean energy in the military. In 2010, Sharon Burke became the first-ever assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs. The high-ranking office was created to help the Department of Defense cut energy costs, improve its capabilities and lower its risks.

Some might have said the creation of Burke's office was long overdue; the U.S. military is the single biggest consumer of energy in the world, spending about $20 billion a year on mostly petroleum fuels. That was part of the reason Burke, who previously worked for a similarly focused think tank, was hired. But she tells media that another impetus was that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put supply lines directly in jeopardy.

Burke has helped usher changes into the military, from more efficient cooling systems in tents in Afghanistan to hybrid solar lines that help remote posts be less reliant on vulnerable supply lines, to an Air Force program that's looking for ways to improve engine efficiency. A huge focus has been on military operations, which account for 75 percent of the military's energy use. But bases have also been getting on board.

On base, on board

While all Army installations are looking for ways to achieve zero impact from their waste, energy and water use — a concept referred to as "net zero" — Fort Carson is one of only two bases nationwide that's part of a pilot program aiming to achieve the ambitious goal by 2020. In fact, Fort Carson was recently named No. 66 on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Top 100 list of the largest green power users in the nation. It took the No. 4 slot on the Top 10 Federal Government list.

Asked whether the net zero goal is realistic, Fort Carson Utilities Program Manager Vince Guthrie says he can't guarantee success, but that's not really the point. The goal is ambitious, he says, because it forces the base to "stretch."

"2020 is not a long time away from us right now," he says. "But the cost of some of these technologies is going down fairly rapidly."

The first priority, Guthrie says, is reducing energy use through conservation. The base has seen a 16 to 17 percent reduction in energy use per square foot since 2003. And the base's goal is to average a 3 percent reduction per square foot every year. Guthrie says the base also aggressively pursues renewable power. About 3 percent of its energy comes from solar, 39 percent from wind, and a new woody biomass program with Colorado Springs Utilities is expected to produce up to 5 percent of its energy. As a bonus, the latter program will reuse waste generated by the base.

Fort Carson also has a huge concentration of LEED-certified and -registered buildings — 77 in total, with 37 qualifying as silver, 38 gold, and two platinum. It's a standard of green building, and structures that earn LEED approval meet strict energy-efficiency requirements. The base has also been exploring other avenues like electric vehicles, smart grid technology for better energy-use control, and evaporative cooling for buildings, which has thus far proven far more energy-efficient than air conditioning.

On the waste and water side, Fort Carson has pursued everything from a massive recycling program to low-use water fixtures, to smart irrigation systems, to using grey water on lawns.

The Air Force Academy has likewise been looking for ways to green its operations. Spokesperson Lt. Col. Brus Vidal says the AFA researched going net zero, but found it cost-prohibitive. That said, the Academy has an energy conservation program up and running and is also using clean energy from six ground-source heat pump systems (more are in design or under construction) and 600 kilowatts' worth of thin-film photovoltaic roofing on the Academy's largest dormitory. The Academy is also contracting power from an on-site, 6-megawatt, ground-mounted solar array. And the Academy purchases hydroelectric power from the Western Area Power Administration.

Though renewables make up less than 10 percent of the Academy's energy portfolio, Vidal says it's looking for ways to expand that, ways that make fiscal sense in the long term.

"We would also like to highlight that the U.S. Air Force Academy recognizes the need to provide future leaders the educational foundation to make informed decisions on how best to operate sustainably, how future operations may be in direct response to conflict caused by environmental insecurity, and to understand the importance of cultural/global considerations when implementing solutions," Vidal wrote in an email to the Independent. "This effort starts with the core curriculum required of every cadet and continues to evolve to incorporate the latest information and research through major courses, independent studies and capstone experiences. Particularly within the science and engineering disciplines, new and on-going courses and research are introducing cadets to cutting edge technologies focused on decreasing the Defense Department ecological footprint while simultaneously making the connection between sustainability and environmental security."

A representative from Schriever Air Force Base and Air Force Space Command says an evaluation is underway to explore the possibility of adding a solar array, wind farm and/or ground source heat pumps. Schriever already has 1.1 megawatts of photovoltaic solar energy from panels installed on top of two buildings, as well as an aggressive energy conservation program. The base is also evaluating using a third party to further reduce its water and energy use by thoroughly examining structures for efficiency.

Peterson Air Force Base, too, has an energy and water conservation program and is looking into expanding its use of renewables. The base already uses solar panels on its housing units and is experimenting with newer forms of clean energy technology.

Maj. Natasha Waggoner at the U.S. Air Force Press Desk noted via email that the U.S. Air Force as a whole is looking for cost-effective ways to expand its use of renewables to protect its interests.

"In Fiscal Year 2013," she noted, "8% of Air Force electricity was derived from renewable sources of energy, and the Air Force goal is to increase that percentage to 25% by 2025. As of the end of Fiscal Year 2013, the Air Force had 256 operational renewable energy projects in operation at 96 installations, with a generating capacity of 82 megawatts."

Coming to Colorado

Hunt and other Operation Free leaders are planning a visit to Colorado Springs on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 24 and 25.

They hope to meet with local and state leaders and visit Fort Carson. The group also will host a panel at Colorado College on Monday.

Hunt says the group isn't advocating for any particular legislation in Colorado at this time, but is hoping to gain members and spread its message to vets. Hunt, who also works as a consultant, says he first joined the group in 2010 for reasons he thinks many vets would relate to.

"When a lot of us come home we feel this kind of loss having left the military that we want to continue to serve in some way," he says. "For me, I found that kind of meaning with Operation Free, working on something larger than myself."

We asked Hunt about the military, Operation Free, and his perspective on green energy:

How did your own service in Iraq influence your feelings about clean energy?

I was part of the invasion force in 2003. I was a platoon leader ... we were supporting the command post as the invasion kind of progressed forward and we were moving up through central Iraq and moving, obviously, in a very tactical manner. We, at that point, still didn't know if there were chemical weapons or not, so we had our chemical suits, our chemical masks on our hips ... We came to a fuel point. So we went from a very tactical scenario and then we pulled off the road and got in a big long line of other military vehicles waiting to be refueled. And I remember just in the moment, pulling off and looking in my rear-view mirror.

In central Iraq, there's this really fine dust that kind of swirls around everything. And I remember looking in that rear-view mirror and seeing all that kind of fine dust circulating around, and I saw probably $15 million worth of my satellite equipment that was in my platoon behind me. And I thought, you know, we're really, really vulnerable here. We're sitting here next to a combustible item with about $15 million worth of equipment, not to mention a platoon worth of soldiers.

And we had F18 Hornets overhead. We had, you know, GPS on our hips. We had satellite phones, we could call any place in the world. You know, we were the most lethal, advanced military fighting force in human history. We were a 21st century military dependent on a 20th century form of fuel. And that was really the moment where it hit me, you know, we would never go on a mission without redundancies. You've always got extra batteries for your radio; you always have extra ammunition for your weapon... but we're single-threaded on oil.

A lot of service members have been killed protecting supply lines, refueling, doing things that pertain to oil, right?

Absolutely. And that's what many, many service members you'll talk to will talk about. They were leaving the wire for no other reason than to refuel ... One story that I think really brings it home is there's ... a company of Marines out of Twentynine Palms, California, and they were deploying to Afghanistan.

So the Marines have been one of the leaders in this renewable energy space. So the Marines trained up on tactical solar, so mobile solar panels that would power within their combat outpost, their generators, solar blankets that would go over their tents that could provide things like air conditioning and things like that. And a tactical solar blanket that they could actually take out on missions and when they were sitting in listening posts and observation posts they could lay these out to actually run their radios. So they're using less batteries.

They have to leave the outpost less often because they don't need to go get new batteries; they can use the solar. So they deployed to Afghanistan, [to] Helmand Province, which is one of the most difficult environments in the world, and one of the most deadly environments for U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan. So they went there and they had a rough go of it. They sustained casualties.

And so the battalion commander came to the company commander and said, "Hey, you're taking the fight to the enemy and you guys are sustaining some casualties, so to reduce any uncertainties I'm going to give you back your generators. We're going to take back this experimental stuff and just, you know, help you reduce some uncertainty." And the company commander said, "Absolutely not, this technology is saving lives because my Marines don't have to move outside the wire to get fuel. They don't need to refuel their generators and get on the road, which is where we're getting torn up with IEDs, because we have to do that less with this solar technology." ... I think that really brings home why this matters.

Your organization talks a lot about the dangers to service members overseas when they are securing and transporting fuel. You also talk a lot about our national security interests in getting away from fossil fuel because of vulnerable trade routes and the risk of destabilization in regions most vulnerable to climate change. Can you talk about the latter?

The military is a place where I guess if you did a poll, I don't think you would find a bunch of people that are real worried about the polar bears or the ice caps. But what you will really find is a community, particularly among the leadership, that understands that extreme weather, rising ocean levels and other climate security risks are a real threat to our national security, because they lead to instability around the world. We can look at the Philippines. [Typhoon] Haiyan, within [weeks, 9,500 military personnel] were on the ground. I'm glad they were because that's what I want for my country, that we can project power around the world and help people ... But as we see these issues continue to evolve and more extreme weather, more resource conflict, it absolutely falls on the United States military to respond to those things. And I think it was pretty telling that everybody from the Department of Defense to the CIA and other national intelligence agencies — again not known for being tree huggers — identify climate change as a global security threat...

Just to bring it down to the local level, it's a serious issue as well when we talk about the role of reserve and national guard troops responding to domestic emergencies. So whether that is Superstorm Sandy and the thousands of national guard and reserve and active troops that responded to that disaster, or it's wildfires in Colorado, where the Colorado National Guard deploys every summer to work on wildfires in Colorado. Same thing in my home state of Arizona. ... Whether we're talking about resource scarcity leading to resource conflict, or we're talking about displacement due to rising ocean levels, or we're talking about more intense and frequent weather disasters, those all impact U.S. national security.

The military has taken some initiatives to start using more clean energy. Do you think they're going far enough?

In my opinion — and I come from within the monastery, so take it with a grain of salt — but I think the military has identified a threat and has moved out aggressively to combat it. I think the military, as is often the case, is leading the private sector in developing and overcoming these challenges. And that's the way it's kind of always been.

So the simple answer would be yes, I do think they're doing great work on it. You know, we can look back at other technology, things that you and I have used probably way too much today, like ... GPS, the Internet. Many of those things, particularly GPS and the Internet, those were developed in order to overcome a military challenge and then you and I are using those every single day of our lives. That's the power of the military adopting renewable energy as a priority; that's the power that it has for the private sector ... It makes it that much more reasonable for those technologies — the good ones — to be adopted and commercialized in the private sector.

As you may know, the Air Force Academy installed a 6-megawatt solar array in June 2011 and Fort Carson is one of two bases attempting to go net zero by 2020. How do our Colorado bases compare to other bases across the country?

I think they are keeping ahead of the curve, and I think particularly Fort Carson and the work they're doing being net zero by 2020 on an enormous post like that ... I think it's really great that the Army and Department of Defense has put such a focus on Fort Carson and really made it a flagship for this, because it really shows the power of it. It's something that's going to be good for Fort Carson when BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure, the process by which the military chooses which bases to shut down] comes around again ... which in turn is great for the community.

So even with these changes, the military is still a huge user of energy, whether it's for tanks, ships or aircraft. Some 75 percent of energy the military uses is for operations. I saw that your group supports biofuels, but I know that some biofuels are actually pretty inefficient to create — ethanol from corn, for instance. And there are other problems. In 2012, 40 percent of America's corn went to producing ethanol, despite a drought that sent world food prices soaring. And that was actually threatening to cause political instability in poor countries. So, what's the ultimate solution to this problem?

You bring up an outstanding issue, because I think when people think of biofuels, everybody just thinks of ethanol. When really the growth, and I think the potential, is in advanced biofuels ... made from things like switchgrass; made from things like biowaste and other elements. And that's been one of the key things that we have fought for, is continued research and development and continued funding of that research and development within the National Defense Authorization Act to permit that industry to continue to grow.

The cost of advanced biofuel ... has just been plummeting rapidly ... Sometimes senators will say, "Why are we going to spend all this money on advanced biofuels when oil is cheaper?" Well, is oil cheaper? It depends, first off, if we look at the externalities. It also depends on other elements, for instance, a $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil would impact the Department of Defense with an increase of their bills for fuel of about $1.3 billion.

How do you think your group is perceived differently than environmental groups that champion the same causes?

I think particularly because we're veterans with real-life experiences that inform us on this that we do get a level of respect or we can get into offices that maybe we wouldn't otherwise ... I want to make it very clear that I'm sure if you talked to a lot of groups that are deeper in the environmental movement that they would have issues with the way that we talk about this. I'm sure you can find a lot of people on the fossil fuel side that would have a lot of issues with how we talk about this ... We don't find a home with either side because we focus on what it is that we're qualified to talk about, which is the link between energy security and national security, climate security and national security.

Clean energy is, in many cases, extremely expensive compared to more traditional fuels. Given sequestration and other cutbacks, how can the American government continue to afford to invest in these technologies?

In my opinion, it goes back to the argument of, "How can we afford not to?" So when we were developing a means to send data, which has now turned into the Internet; when we were developing a means to guide missiles which turned into guided missiles and microchips, we did that out of military necessity. I do believe that the military's doing this out of a military necessity. And it will get to the point where the good technology can be taken and commercialized and will compete with cheap, dirty fossil fuels.

It's also true that many renewable sources of energy are less reliable than fossil fuels. Wind produces when it's windy. Solar produces when it's sunny. Given the need for readiness in the military, especially overseas, are these technologies really practical?

They've found them to be very practical. I guess one of the things that I think would be important to point out is we're not one of the groups that thinks you turn it off tomorrow. That you just turn off the power plant and we'll figure it out. No, absolutely not. But we do have to start moving in the direction of finding that new blockbuster technology.

So on that forward operating base, yes, they can use solar power during the day, they can charge some batteries off of it, but there is probably a point at night that they do have to fire up the generator. That's where we are as a country. But I feel confident that we are an exceptional nation; we're an exceptional place where people from around the world want to come here and develop new technology and grow their businesses. And I think that is going to win the day.

stanley@csindy.com

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