Military Goes Green For An Edge On The Battlefield

The Navy is developing biofuel-burning F-18 fighter jets and hybrid-electric warships to increase energy independence. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus discusses those initiatives, and retired Army Gen. Steve Anderson talks about what he learned about energy-efficient camps while in Iraq.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, there are some folks who are adopting green government policies to fight climate change and finding it it's one way to fight global warming. But, you know, the U.S. military has another reason to use renewable technologies and increase energy efficiency, and that is to save lives.

Here's an example. Think of those tents out in the desert of Iraq or Afghanistan. It can get pretty hot out there, like, you know, 120 degrees. So the tents, which have thin walls, no insulation - they're tents - but they are air-conditioned, which takes a lot of fuel to battle all that heat and leaks out of the tents and you got to keep those air conditioners going all the time, all of which, the fuel, right, all that fuel has to be trucked in.

And in Afghanistan, the fuel trucks can travel for weeks on winding mountain roads before they can deliver their fuel to remote military bases, weeks in which those trucks are sitting ducks for attack by terrorists. And we've seen that happening. We've seen what happens when fuel trucks sit idly and are exposed.

So why not use energy more efficiently in the battlefield as well? You put fewer soldiers in those fuel convoys' lives at risk.

Joining me now to talk about that is my next guest who did a lot of thinking about this during his time in Iraq as senior logistician under General Petraeus during the surge. Steve Anderson is a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army. He's also chief operating officer of the company Synovision Solutions. He joins us by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, General Anderson.

Brigadier General STEVE ANDERSON (Retired, U.S. Army; Chief Operating Officer, Synovision Solutions): Hi, Chris(ph), great to be with you here today.

FLATOW: Ira here on SCIENCE FRIDAY, just - people that wrong (unintelligible). General, how did you get started on this? What put you down that road?

Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: Well, (unintelligible) when I was the senior logistician working for General Petraeus back in 2007, early 2007, he looked at me one day and said, you know, Steve, we're getting kids killed out there on the roads every single day. And if you think back to 2007 in Iraq, that's exactly what was happening. So what can we do to get trucks off the road?

And so I started doing some analysis. It turned out about a thousand trucks a day to support the 300,000 troops and contractors we had in Iraq at that time, and of which about 35,400 were doing nothing but moving fuel. So I asked the question: What can we do to reduce our fuel requirements?

And the answer came back, well, we can insulate our structures, and it's an absolute no-brainer when you start thinking about it because just, as you just said a minute ago, you've got these incredibly inefficient structures that are being air-conditioned. So let's come up with some innovative ways to insulate our structures and in the process save billions of dollars - and that's really what it is - and many, many lives. And so that's how I got into this business.

FLATOW: So you're in the business of insulating the tents?

Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: Well, no, not really. I came up as part of the - my solution set, I determined that we needed to come up with an insulating technique...

FLATOW: Right.

Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: ...and so we asked the Army's Rapid Equipping Force from Fort Belvoir to advise us on that topic, and they developed a - essentially a technique using closed-cell spray polyurethane foam that was essentially sprayed on the exterior of tents. So we've been doing this now for three years. I initiated a $95 million contract back in 2007. That contract is now producing $1 billion in annual cost avoidance.

FLATOW: Wow.

Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: That's with a B - one billion. And more importantly, it's taking 11,000 trucks off the roads in Iraq. So we've known this now, and we know it works. What I've been saying here since I retired a year ago and actually even before that, before I got out of the Army, was why don't we have a Department of Defense policy to require energy efficiency because I'm absolutely convinced that energy efficiency leads to military effectiveness.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with General Steve Anderson. And so are they adopting the policies that you recommended?

Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: Unfortunately, no. I mean, it's a difficult issue to get traction on. Maybe some people don't believe the numbers. But when you understand the fully-burdened cost of what it really takes to deliver a gallon of fuel to Iraq or Afghanistan, you'll realize the tremendous cost that are associated with this.

For instance, a gallon of gas might costs $2.75 here in the United States, and that - and it's purchased as such by the Defense's energy supply center out of Fort Belvoir. But by the time you deliver it over those mountainous goat trails in Afghanistan, it can be as high as $200, $300, even $400 a gallon. And when you understand those kinds of costs, then you realize, well, doggone it, we've got to do something about that. We've got to, you know, reduce our energy requirements.

And when so - when you simply insulate your structures or when you build energy-efficient structures from the beginning, you will tremendously reduce your sustainment costs and, oh, by the way, you'll also reduce your acquisition costs.

And let me explain to you how that happens because you mentioned the tents a little earlier. A typical tent costs $15,300. That's what the Army pays for what we call a GP medium tent. Well, that's not a $15,000 tent. It's really a $40,000 tent because we put $25,000 in air-conditioning on that tent.

Now, if we were to make that an energy-efficient structure - of which there are dozens of outstanding designs out there - perhaps spend a little bit more up front, you'd be spending instead of $25,000 in air-conditioners, you'd be spending $5,000 on air-conditioners, and therefore the acquisition costs of that tent instead of being $40,000 is $30,000. So not only would you...

FLATOW: Wow.

Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: ...achieve tremendous benefits from sustainment cost reduction but you can actually acquire the structures upfront much, much more cheaply and much more effectively.

FLATOW: All right. We've got to have to take a break. Stay with us. We'll come back and talk lots more about how the military is saving energy and hear more about some suggestions and what the Navy is doing, you know? If you join the Navy, you might save some energy. We'll tell you how that's happening. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Waiting for the secretary of the Navy to come on next segment. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

We're talking about saving energy on the battlefield this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. My next guest has a vision of helicopters and jets running on biofuels, warships designed with hybrid electric engines. And when you're the secretary of the Navy, you don't have to deal with all that haggling back and forth to make the dream come true. If you have a vision, maybe you can just cut the orders to make it happen.

Joining me now to talk about some of these plans is Ray Mabus. He is secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Secretary RAY MABUS (U.S. Navy): Thank you so much. I'm really glad to be with you today.

FLATOW: It seems like so many stories we talk about on the cutting edge of the military happen in the Navy when we talk about it.

Sec. MABUS: Well, I think that's true. We've always been on the cutting edge of things like changing in energy. You know, the Navy went from sail to coal in the 1850s, from coal to oil in the early 1900s, to nuclear in the 1950s. And every time there were naysayers, every time there were folks that said not going to happen. You're trading one very proven method of transportation for one that hasn't been proven. And every time, they were wrong, and I'm convinced they're going to be - that whatever naysayers there are will be wrong again this time.

FLATOW: Tell us what you've got planned so far. What's on the horizon for energy-saving in the Navy?

Sec. MABUS: We've set out five goals, the most overarching of which is that by the year 2020 at least half of all energy the Navy uses both ashore and afloat will come from non-fossil-fuel sources. And we're going down that path. You talked about in your introduction - we've already flown an F-18 Hornet on biofuels. We've already certified our helicopters on biofuels. We're testing right now surface ships using biofuels. And so we're moving down that way.

The - onshore, the Navy owns 3.3 million acres of land and has 72,500 buildings. So we're moving into things like solar and wind power, into geothermal, hydrothermal, wave action, and we're beginning to make some real progress. And finally, you mentioned the hybrid drive on the ship...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Sec. MABUS: ...we've already launched one of those - the big-deck amphibious ship Makin Island. It was built in my home state of Mississippi. And on its maiden voyage from Pascagoula, Mississippi, around to its home port in San Diego, around South America, it saved almost $2 million in fuel cost with that hybrid drive. So we're - we've got the vision, but we're also taking some real concrete practical steps to achieve that vision.

FLATOW: It's been the history of the military going back to, you know, transistorize, miniaturization for weaponry, for surveillance, intelligence, things like that that civilian research and development has followed the military course. Do you expect that to happen here also?

Sec. MABUS: I think it should. The - you don't have to look any further than your television set. Flat-screen TVs started in the military. Things like the Internet and GPS started with military applications.

And in energy, the thing that the military can do is create a market for energy because the two potential obstacles for changing energy sources, one is price, and two is infrastructure. And as the Navy buys more of these alternative fuels, the price is going to come down because you're creating a demand signal there. And second is, if that demand is big enough, the private sector will build the infrastructure. And once it's built for the military, it's pretty logical and fairly easy step for it to then be expanded into the civilian sector.

FLATOW: Secretary, we have with us also Steve Anderson, who is a retired brigadier general in the Army and he was the senior logistician under General Petraeus. And Steve is saying - Steve, you can jump in - saying that we should start thinking more energy efficiency by building the equipment right from the ground up - energy-efficient housing and things like that.

Sec. MABUS: Oh, I think he's absolutely correct. There are two things here that we're talking about. One is using different forms of energy: how do we produce it, then how do we use it? And a second one is how efficient can we be with whatever form of energy that we're using.

And we should design things to be energy efficient for a couple of reasons. One is strategic because we simply buy too much energy from potentially volatile sources on Earth. But the other is tactical, that the general can state(ph) to very clearly. You know, to get a gallon of gasoline to a frontline unit in Afghanistan - and gasoline is what we import the most into Afghanistan - is very expensive.

And it's costly in other ways. The Army did a study a little while ago that said for every 24 convoys coming into Afghanistan, we lose a soldier or a Marine, killed or wounded guarding those convoys. Plus, it takes Marines and soldiers away from doing what they need to do, which is fight and engage and rebuild. Guarding these convoys, because we haven't designed the equipment from the ground up, or because we're not producing energy on site in a different way, just costs us in lots of different ways.

FLATOW: What about bases here at home? In August you told the New York Times that a base commander showed you his electric bill and no one knew where 85 percent of the energy was going.

Sec. MABUS: Yeah. The bill said line lost, 85 percent. Well, on bases our goal is to have at least half our bases to be net zero by the year 2020. And that means that they're not pulling any energy off the grid, that they're either neutral or giving energy back to the grid. We've already got one base that is giving energy back to the grid, that's China Lake in California, due to geothermal energy sources.

And again, we - we're pretty big. We're not as big as the Army in terms of land bases, but we have over three million acres and over 72,000 buildings. And so there's a lot of room for improvement there. And just in things like smart meters that we paid for using the administration's stimulus money, which will allow that base commander to know where that energy is going and to know which buildings need to be upgraded, to know which things need to be monitored better and actually cut off the lights or turn down the heat or something yeah, just those simple steps are going to save a whole, whole lot of energy.

And I want to add one more thing, and that is that this president and this administration is committed to moving the United States to a different energy economy. And I think that the point that you made earlier is the military can help lead that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me ask one last question for General Anderson. In talking about building energy efficient structures and modernizing in that in energy efficiency ways, have you ever gotten a chance to talk with the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, about this, General?

Brig. Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: No, but I've talked to Sharon Burke, his deputy, and Tom Morehouse, her deputy. She's essentially the operational energy director for DOD. And I mean my point is that DOD needs to have we know enough about the effectiveness of energy efficient structures in Iraq and Afghanistan that we now need to have DOD policy that requires it, that you've got a structure that's going to be up for 90 days, that we're going to save a lot of money, and more importantly we're going to save blood by taking trucks off the road, by making our structures energy efficient. And I'm frankly quite frustrated in that we haven't been able to do this, because we have the empirical data. The Army has studied it. OSD's Power Security(ph) Taskforce has studied it at length. We know that it works. We know that it saved lives.

You know, the secretary was talking about, you know, essentially building markets for energy. Well, there's a tremendous one overseas and in Afghanistan. Tom Friedman has written about looking at Afghanistan as an operational energy test bed in which soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and contractors could go over there, exploit technologies that we could bring back to the United States later on, and help us defeat the greatest threat to our nation, which is probably our overall reliance on foreign oil.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Brig. Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: I mean, there's some tremendous things that we could do over there and it all starts, I think, with simply looking at reducing our energy requirements and getting trucks off the road. We've had over 1,000 Americans killed moving fuel - 1,000 Americans since the war began.

I just talked to the Supreme Fuel, which is the primary contractor in Afghanistan. They lost 47 contractors, truck drivers, killed in the last month. You know, we're spilling so much blood over there and it's all because I think we're moving fuel that we wouldn't need if we were requiring energy efficient structures.

FLATOW: All right, General Steve Anderson, thank you very much for...

Sec. MABUS: If I could if I could...

FLATOW: Yes, Secretary.

Sec. MABUS: ...jump in here just for a second. I couldn't agree with the general more. And the Marines, in particular, are moving out on this. They have done stuff like solar-powered water purifiers. They're doing insulation for their tents. They're doing geothermal...

Brig. Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: They pulled(ph) a FOB over there, in Afghanistan, sir. And, you know, the Navy and the Marines are to be commended. They are leading the charge. Colonel Brutus Charette and the experimental FOB initiative that the Marines have launched is actually on the ground in the Afghanistan now. And they're making that essentially a they're taking that FOB off grid using all renewable energy sources in order to provide all the requirements for that FOB. And it's a great step forward. And I wish all other services were doing the same thing that the Navy and Marines are doing.

FLATOW: FOB - is that forward and outpost base?

Brig. Brig. Gen. ANDERSON: Correct.

FLATOW: For our listeners. 1-800-989-8255. So, what, what Secretary, I'm going to give you the I'm afraid to give this to a Secretary of the Navy -give you the blank check question that I give a lot of researchers and scientists who come on the show. And that is if you had a blank check and you could spend any amount of money on some research or a technology you'd like to have that would make you more energy-efficient, where would you like to spend it? What would you spend it on?

Sec. MABUS: Well, I think you'd spend it where we're spending it today, which is looking at - for the fleet next generation biofuels, you know, things like algae, things like camelina. We've been working with the Department of Agriculture. We've been working with the Department of Energy. We've been working with venture capitalists. We've been working with the Small Business Administration and various small businesses around the country, saying here's here's what we need. Because you need to design your future systems to be more efficient. But in the case of the Navy, we've got a majority of the fleet we're going to have 10 years from now, because it takes a long time to build ships, and they last for 35 to 40 years. So we need energy sources that can be used on existing engines.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Sec. MABUS: And you know, the Navy basically burns two things outside of nuclear. We're already 17 percent nuclear, so we have a head start there. But we burn kerosene to fly our airplanes. We burn diesel fuel to drive our ships. Now, we call them different things, but that's basically what it is. What we need are substitutes for those two things. And I think that you're seeing a lot of science being worked on right now in those - in that area.

FLATOW: We're talking about energy efficiency this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Secretary Ray Mabus at the moment. And is it true - I had a statistic that the U.S. Navy is the biggest single buyer of diesel fuel in the world? Is that correct?

Sec. MABUS: The Department of Defense is the, I think, single largest buyer of fossil fuels in the United States. We - the Department of Defense buys almost two percent of all the fossil fuel energy used by the country. Navy and Marine Corps are about 40 percent of that.

FLATOW: But even if you get those alternative energy sources, you're still going to have to truck them in and put people in jeopardy, you know, unless you can think of more energy-efficient ways to use less of them.

Sec. MABUS: Well, or unless produce the energy on site.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Sec. MABUS: For example, the forward operating base, the FOB, that the general was referring to, a lot of the things they're doing is producing the energy on site, such as solar, to both heat and cool places and also do things like water purification, wind power, that's portable, that you can use geothermal, that, you know, you drill basically - you drill a well and pass either air or water down and bring it back up cooler or hotter than it went in. And so you certainly have to make things more efficient with things like insulation or with the design.

But then you can produce the things on site. And in terms of biofuels, you can grow it there. You don't have to truck it in if you - depending on the biofuel. And we're looking at fuel from stuff like trash, from garbage. So that seems to be available everywhere in the world.

FLATOW: All right. We've run out of time. I'd like to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today.

Sec. MABUS: Well, thank you and thank you for bringing some attention to this subject.

FLATOW: Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon in Washington. Steve Anderson, retired brigadier general of the U.S. Army, senior logician under General Petraeus during the surge in Iraq, and now chief operating officer at the company Synovision Solutions.

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