For the military, energy efficiency isn’t about going granola. It’s about tightening the gears on the war machine. Fossil fuels are a huge liability for American soldiers. Marine convoys loaded down with gas are sitting ducks for enemy bullets and roadside bombs. Using less energy means shorter supply lines: fewer targets, fewer casualties, more American soldiers making it home to their families.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus understands this, and it’s why he’s made clean power and energy efficiency a top priority. Speaking at the Global Energy Efficiency Forum in 2013, he said, “There is a culture change that’s going on in the Navy and Marine Corps. It is happening ‘on the deckplates’ as we say in the Navy, as Sailors and Marines come to grips with the fact that these programs help them become better warfighters.”

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Ruth Bell, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center is helping drive that culture change. Together with Columbia professor Elke Weber, Bell leads a program that deploys insights from the social sciences to “nudge” more energy-efficient behavior. She is helping the Navy to change its thinking on power: turning off the lights in the barracks or not leaving a fighter jet idling on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Said Bell, “We’re working with them to see whether we can add behavioral tools to their tool chest to really improve their effectiveness.”

Commanders know that by cutting energy use and relying more on renewable power sources like solar, the Navy can guard against volatility in the energy market. Said Mabus, “Every time the price of oil goes up a dollar a barrel, it costs the Navy and Marine Corps $30 million in additional fuel costs.” When the Navy budget takes a hit, Mabus said, “we fly less, we train less, Marines spend less time in the field.”

“What we’ve come to understand about the military is that their objectives are to win and to bring their folks home.”

According to the Department of Defense’s latest Energy Management Report, over the last two years the Navy and Marine Corps invested $700 million in making their buildings more energy efficient. On the front lines, soldiers are using generators to power heating and air conditioning. Said Bell, “They realized that if they insulated those temporary structures in the field, they didn’t need as much fuel to heat or cool them.” Energy efficiency is helping troops mitigate the risks associated with fossil fuels.

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By 2020, the Navy aims to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Explained Bell, “If you’re completely dependent on a particular kind of fuel. You’re very vulnerable.” She noted that soldiers are now taking solar blankets into the field in lieu of gas-run power generators. Traditional generators are heavy, noisy and can be a liability in firefight. Solar blankets are lighter than gas-run generators and they’re also silent, meaning they won’t attract the attention of enemy combatants. Moreover, said Bell, “If you hit a solar blanket, it just knocks out the blanket.” Even if part of the blanket is damaged, the rest is still able to supply power, and that can mean the difference between life and death for troops caught in harm’s way.

At every level, weaning off fossil fuels is helping the Navy become a more efficient and more effective fighting force. Said Bell, “What we’ve come to understand about the military is that their objectives are to win and to bring their folks home,” adding, “Their desire for energy efficiency is completely mission driven. There’s nothing ideological about it, and it’s very, very practical.”


Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.