For an agency charged with defending the nation’s security, the Defense Department could afford to do a better job protecting its own energy resources — if only Congress would let it, a pair of Democratic lawmakers are arguing.
At issue is how the Pentagon enables investment in energy security. Security experts have said that while the Defense Department’s ambitious targets to get 3 gigawatts of electricity on installations from renewable sources by 2025 has reduced dependence on the grid for normal operations, upgrades for keeping the lights on during emergencies are lagging.
“Most on-base renewable energy power systems are configured to offset electricity purchases from the grid but cannot provide power to the base during blackouts,” said a Center for National Policy report released last month.
Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., are hoping to change that. They introduced companion amendments to the Defense authorization bill, which the House Armed Services Committee began marking up Wednesday, that would change how the Pentagon finances energy security upgrades.
The alterations, Peters and Udall hope, would allow the military to make investments that better insulate installations from power outages in the case of emergencies, and also help reduce the armed forces’ dependency on fossil fuels — both of which they say the military is angling to do.
“If we can increase the efficiency of vehicles and generators, we can reduce the number of convoys and troops in harm’s way. If we can reduce the number and weight of batteries carried by ground troops, we can make our infantry lighter and more combat-effective,” Udall, who sponsored the original version in 2011 with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., said at a recent press conference, which Giffords attended.
The provisions, which are modeled after recommendations published in two Center for National Policy reports, would allow cost savings from renewable energy projects to be reinvested into military installations. It also would extend a calculation for energy return on investment currently used by the Navy to the entire Defense Department, which should make it easier to justify energy security upgrades.
Other items include expanding a financing mechanism, known as energy savings performance contracts, to increase efficiencies in ships, vehicles and aircraft, and promoting Defense Department energy-related research into fuel-efficient vehicles and breakthroughs like lightweight, portable solar-power panels that some military personnel currently use.
“When the commandant came to talk to me about solar energy, he described the solar panel like the Charlton Heston notion of, ‘Try to pry it out of my cold dead hands,’ like it was his gun,” Peters said of one interaction with a Marine Corps commandant. “You can’t take those solar panels away from Marines now.”
Such technologies can improve flexibility in the field, proponents have argued. And by using less oil, the military isn’t as exposed to oil price shocks — the funding for which comes out of the operations and management budget.
Concerns about energy security have become more prevalent inside the Pentagon. In itsQuadrennial Defense Review released in March, the Defense Department warned of vulnerabilities to climate change “threat multipliers” such as extreme storms linked to a warming planet.
“Consequently, we will complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on our missions and operational resiliency, and develop and implement plans to adapt as required,” the report said.
The amendments to the Defense authorization bill could help the Pentagon address any insufficiencies it might find, as proponents said the amendments could have a tremendous impact on how military installations spend on energy technology. And since they accompany legislation that Congress readily passes annually, there’s a chance the amendments will find their way to President Obama’s desk.
Some Republicans, however, might stand in the way.
Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and John McCain, R-Ariz., have traditionally opposed energy-related changes to the Defense authorization bill that would take money out of operations and management.
Conservatives also in recent years have pushed amendments that forbid procurement of drop-in fuel sources that cost more than conventional petroleum. Such efforts serve as a shot at the biofuels industry, though some military officials say relying on homegrown biofuels has reduced costs by limiting exposure to oil price shocks.
Therefore, some parts of the amendments face a tougher road. Allowing installations to use savings from renewable energy to invest in energy security, for example, might divert funds from operations and management, though advocates would argue the benefits in avoided costs would be greater.
The amendment’s supporters, though, say that opposition won’t deter them.
“We’ll do whatever we can to have it pass,” Peters said of the House. “Obviously we’re on the minority on our side, but I do think that we’ve presented something that the department likes and that makes sense for the military.”