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Defense Department Goes Green to Save Lives, Not Environment

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Defense Department officials are pushing forward with an array of green energy initiatives, but saving the environment isn’t what’s driving their interest. Instead, they’re seeking to save lives and dollars. 

Defense officials are beginning to test solar-powered devices for troops in Afghanistan with the hope of reducing the number of fuel convoys, which are often targets of insurgent attacks.

Unlike previous wars, the conflict in Afghanistan does not have a clear battlefront. Instead, isolated hubs of American soldiers are connect by a wiry web of supply roads – often through unsecured lands where enemies attack, killing soldiers and cutting off fuel and water supplies.

From 2003 to 2007, more than 3,000 American troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan on resupply missions, according to an Army report.

“You have a quick reaction force that every day almost winds up in a fight because they’ve got to protect the convoy,” former Army Capt. Mike Breen, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now is executive director of the Center for National Policy, said. “You’re doing all of these incredibly inefficient things, and it’s costing you lives and force structure.”

To cut back on dangerous fuel deliveries, Defense is experimenting with solar power for a handful of basic systems. At one camp in Afghanistan, a generator that powered a radio tower was replaced with solar panels. That saved troops a daily climb up a hillside to refuel the generator, which they did in an armored bulldozer to avoid being shot, Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, said at a CNP panel discussion Wednesday.

“The department hasn’t quite looked at energy quite this way before as a war-fighting capability,” she said. 

It’s also a money saver. Last year, the military burned $15 billion of fuel, although most went to airplanes and trucks that right now can’t be powered by alternative sources. Defense is seeking to expand solar energy to fleets of unmanned drones, which would make them quieter and more efficient, Burke said.

From 2007 to 2011, Defense increased spending on alternative energy from $400 million to $1.2 billion, according to a Pew report.

Even small changes could help reduce costs and make life more bearable for soldiers. Each solider carries about 12 to 18 batteries for a standard three-day mission, and solar-rechargeable ones could lighten their load. 

These efforts aren’t likely to be axed by upcoming budget negotiations--the Senate recently shot down an amendment to the continuing resolution that would have gutted $60 million for biofuel production.

Ian Kullgren is a staff reporter for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire. Prior to his current role, he covered the 2012 election in his home state of Michigan, where he followed the Republican primary race in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District for MLive Media Group. He was also a member of the Michigan capitol press corps for Michigan State University's State News, covering Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the state legislature and the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

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