After a decade of waging wars in areas where fuel is not readily available, overdependence is being seen as a liability.

With insurgents increasingly attacking the U.S. fuel supply convoys that lumber across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, the military is pushing aggressively to develop, test and deploy renewable energy to decrease its need to transport fossil fuels.

Last week, a Marine company from California arrived in the rugged outback of Helmand province bearing novel equipment: portable solar panels that fold up into boxes; energy-conserving lights; solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity; solar chargers for computers and communications equipment.

The 150 Marines of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, will be the first to take renewable technology into a battle zone, where the new equipment will replace diesel and kerosene-based fuels that would ordinarily generate power to run their encampment.

Even as Congress has struggled unsuccessfully to pass an energy bill and many states have put renewable energy on hold because of the recession, the military this year has pushed rapidly forward. After a decade of waging wars in remote corners of the globe where fuel is not readily available, senior commanders have come to see overdependence on fossil fuel as a big liability, and renewable technologies — which have become more reliable and less expensive over the past few years — as providing a potential answer. These new types of renewable energy now account for only a small percentage of the power used by the armed forces, but military leaders plan to rapidly expand their use over the next decade.

Truck convoys are targets

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the huge truck convoys that haul fuel to bases have been sitting ducks for enemy fighters — in the latest attack oil tankers carrying fuel for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops in Afghanistan were set on fire in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, early on October 4. In Iraq and Afghanistan, one Army study found, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed. In the past three months, six Marines have been wounded guarding fuel runs in Afghanistan.

“There are a lot of profound reasons for doing this, but for us at the core it's practical,” said Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who has said he wants 50 per cent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020.

That figure includes energy for bases as well as fuel for cars and ships.

“Fossil fuel is the No. 1 thing we import to Afghanistan,” Mabus said, “and guarding that fuel is keeping the troops from doing what they were sent there to do, to fight or engage local people.”

He and other experts also said that greater reliance on renewable energy improved national security, because fossil fuels often came from unstable regions and scarce supplies were a potential source of international conflict.

Fossil fuel accounts for 30 per cent to 80 per cent of the load in convoys into Afghanistan, bringing costs as well as risk. While the military buys gas for just over $1 a gallon, getting that gallon to some forward operating bases costs $400.

“We had a couple of tenuous supply lines across Pakistan that are costing us a heck of a lot, and they're very dangerous,” said Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.

Col. Robert Charette Jr.,director of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Company I's equipment would prove reliable and durable enough for military use, and that other Marine companies would be adopting renewable technology in the coming months, although there would probably always be a need to import fuel for some purposes.

Hybrid vessel, biofuels

Last year, the Navy introduced its first hybrid vessel, a Wasp class amphibious assault ship called the U.S.S. Makin Island, which at speeds under 10 knots runs on electricity rather than on fossil fuel, a shift resulting in greater efficiency that saved 9,00,000 gallons of fuel on its maiden voyage from Mississippi to San Diego, compared with a conventional ship its size, the Navy said. The Air Force will have its entire fleet certified to fly on biofuels by 2011 and has flown test flights using a 50-50 mix of plant-based biofuel and jet fuel; the Navy took its first delivery of fuel made from algae this summer. Biofuels can in theory be produced wherever the raw materials, like plants, are available, and could ultimately be made near battlefields.

Began in 2006

Concerns about the military's dependence on fossil fuels in far-flung battlefields began in 2006 in Iraq, where Richard Zilmer, then a major general and the top U.S. commander in western Iraq, sent an urgent cable to Washington suggesting that renewable technology could prevent loss of life. That request catalysed new research, but the pressure for immediate results magnified as the military shifted its focus to Afghanistan, a country with little available native fossil fuel and scarce electricity outside cities.

Fuel destined for U.S. troops in landlocked Afghanistan is shipped to Karachi, Pakistan, where it is loaded on convoys of 50 to 70 vehicles for transport to central bases. Smaller convoys branch out to the forward lines. The Marines' new goal is to make the more peripheral sites sustain themselves with the kind of renewable technology carried by Company I, since solar electricity can be generated right on the battlefield.

There are similar tactical advantages to using renewable fuel for planes and building hybrid ships.

“Every time you cut a ship away from the need to visit an oiler — a fuel supply ship — you create an advantage,” Mabus said, noting that the Navy had pioneered previous energy transformations in the United States, from sail power to coal power in the 19th century, as well as from coal to oil and oil to nuclear power in the 20th century. Because the military has moved into renewable energy so rapidly, much of the technology being used is commercially available or has been adapted for the battlefield from readily available civilian models. — © New York Times News Service

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