ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's been more than a month now since Pakistan shut its border to with Afghanistan to NATO supply trucks. That move came after an errant American airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Now, U.S. troops are getting their supplies through an expensive land and airlift route, so expensive that a single gallon of gas may be costing hundreds of dollars to deliver.
As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, all of this underscores the importance of a recent military initiative to go green. He recently visited a company of solar powered Marines in remote Helmand province, and he sent this report.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The heavy, mine-resistant vehicles that carry almost all U.S. military personnel around the country are gas guzzlers. And even though the U.S. military buys that fuel at a reasonable price, the energy it takes to fly it and truck it to Afghanistan nudges the price into the stratosphere. There's also a much greater cost.
RAY MABUS: It's expensive in terms of getting us there financially. It's also expensive in the fact that for every 50 convoys we lose a Marine, either killed or wounded, guarding that convoy.
LAWRENCE: Ray Mabus is secretary of the Navy, which has set the goal of using non-fossil fuels for 50 percent of its power by the year 2020. Mabus recently paid a visit to U.S. Marines in the Afghan province of Helmand, one of the furthest ends of the fuel supply chain.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So we're going to take you into a billeting tent, sir, that has the liner and the lights.
LAWRENCE: Some of the solutions are incredibly simple. Marines show the secretary the silvery tent liners that increase the efficiency of heaters and air conditions. More novel are the portable solar panel-blankets, able to power communications gear for patrols. That means carrying far fewer heavy batteries. Nearby, there's a small shipping container connected to a bank of solar panels that's powering flat screens and surveillance equipment.
Marine Captain Brandon Newell says the troops don't have to be environmentalists to like the new gear.
CAPTAIN BRANDON NEWELL: If the system works, they don't care. In fact, a Marine will love it if he has to go and refuel that generator less often. They'll love it. They don't care about the message or anything else. All they want is something that works whenever they need it.
LAWRENCE: Newell admits that the measures so far are baby steps and there are plenty of bugs in the system. But the important thing is that the U.S. military is starting to test some of the technology in the roughest conditions, says Secretary Mabus.
MABUS: When the military does something and shows that it works - works in extreme conditions, it works in the most critical of circumstances - it makes it much easier then to commercialize something.
LAWRENCE: That goes for solar panels, says Mabus, but also bio-fuels. This fall the Navy purchased half a million gallons of fuel made from algae or used cooking oil. In the spring, a huge exercise in the Pacific Rim intends to demonstrate that it works just as well as petroleum based fuel.
Mabus says the strategic goal is to free the U.S. military from a product that comes from volatile places with unsavory regimes. He points out that during the NATO action in Libya, a spike in the price of oil cost the U.S. military about a billion dollars. The environmental impact is a side benefit, he says.
MABUS: It really is a question of national security. It may be a side effect on climate change or being better stewards of the environment, but it's not the reason we're doing it.
LAWRENCE: Still, major environmental groups have reacted positively. One expert said it's encouraging to know the military is looking at alternative energy for purely practical reasons. And developers of bio-fuels and solar panels say having the Pentagon - the world's largest consumer of fossil fuel - trying to go green is providing a shot in the arm to their industry.
Quil Lawrence, NPR news
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