The Marines Go Renewable

The Solyndra solar debacle has some in Congress arguing that government needs to get out of the renewable-power ­business. Don’t tell that to the Marine Corps, the bravest new recruit in the clean-energy revolution.

"It isn't about global warming," says Colonel Bob Charette. "it's about saving lives."     Photo: Illustration by Tavis Coburn

IN SEPTEMBER 2010, a company of U.S. Marines entered Sangin District, an area in Afghanistan’s Helmand province that had seen some of the most intense, protracted fighting of the war. Their mission was to relieve British forces and launch an aggressive effort to clear and calm the area, which was, as the military is wont to say, “highly kinetic.” India Company, from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, lost more than two dozen soldiers in the first four months of combat.

Early on in the fighting, First Lieutenant Josef Patterson, India 3/5’s second platoon commander, took a small force south to clear a route into the Sangin River Valley. They established a patrol base, but for two months the area remained so volatile that fuel convoys couldn’t reach it. Without fuel or battery resupply, the team could have been left with no way to run generators or power radios or computers—a potentially crippling situation. Even in smaller numbers, today’s -Marines are considerably more lethal than their predecessors, mostly due to the flexibility enabled by constant connectivity. As Patterson later explained, “If I don’t have comm with my troops and my higher-ups, I am lost.”

But the soldiers of India 3/5 had another source of power: the sun. Specifically, they had a ground-renewable expeditionary energy system (Greens): four portable modules that fold out into two large solar panels each, all connected to a power cell to store the energy overnight. During field operations away from the patrol base, each Marine also carried a solar portable alternative communications energy system (Spaces), an 64-square-inch flexible solar panel lightweight enough (about 2.5 pounds) to be rolled up and stowed in a pack. Normally, a patrol carries enough batteries to last three or four days—20 to 35 pounds for each grunt—and is dependent on frequent and dangerous resupplies. But with the packable solar panels, says Patterson, his patrol of 35 soldiers shed 700 pounds. “We stayed out for three weeks and didn’t need a battery resupply once,” he says. 

Two of India 3/5’s forward patrol bases, in fact, were powered entirely by solar for the duration of the seven-month mission. “We were the only company that had sufficient energy the entire time,” says Captain Stephen Cooney, the mission’s commanding officer.

India Company’s pioneering field deployment of renewable energy represents the leading edge of a rapidly expanding effort by the Marines to make its soldiers nimbler and more self-sufficient. They’re not alone: every branch of the armed forces is working to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, driven by an increasing preoccupation with rising costs, dependence on hostile oil regimes, and the destabilizing threat of climate change. But in the past two years, the Marine Corps has been particularly aggressive, bulling through the usual government bureaucracy in pursuit of immediate battlefield advantage. “It’s pretty extraordinary,” says Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. “They have gone very fast.”

At a moment when renewable-energy development faces stiff political and economic headwinds, jarheads are making a powerful case for the practical benefits of going green. “To the Marine Corps, it isn’t about money or global warming,” says Colonel Bob Charette, the hard-charging head of the Marines’ two-year-old Expeditionary Energy Office. “It’s about saving lives.” 

THE TACTICAL NEED to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is not new to the Pentagon. In 2003, at the outset of the second Iraq war, General James Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division during the initial drive to Baghdad. He found himself repeatedly outrunning his own fuel resupply lines, forcing him to slow down to remain fully powered. In a post-combat report that has since become a touchstone for military analysts, he called on the Department of Defense to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”

Mattis’s plea served to highlight the extraordinary costs of fuel to the military in Afghanistan and Iraq—in dollars and lives. By some estimates, fully 70 percent of the convoys crisscrossing the theater of war are involved in “liquid logistics,” the delivery of fuel and water. In Afghanistan, fuel reaches the front lines via tankers and planes that cross the ocean, trucks from Tajikistan or Russia, and (sometimes) helicopters from forward bases. By the time it gets there, the fully burdened cost can reach anywhere from $30 to an astounding $400 per gallon. Then there are the casualties: one for every 24 fuel convoys, according to a 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute.

Though all branches of the military have struggled with energy use, the Marine Corps’s challenges have brought on something of an identity crisis. The Corps’s role as the military’s ship-to-shore expeditionary force demands that it deploy rapidly and operate independently in severe and hostile circumstances. The Marines are, in essence, the point of the spear.

But, according to a recent Marine Corps report, compared with ten years ago a Marine expeditionary unit now hauls three times as many vehicles carrying four times as much “command, control, and communications” equipment—tech tools and batteries. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ground on, the Marines found themselves bogged down, stuck in semi-permanent bases, operating, in effect, as a second Army.

In August 2009, at the Marine Corps’ first-ever energy summit, Commandant James Conway decreed that expeditionary energy would henceforth be a top priority. The intense rethink he set in motion resulted, earlier this year, in the release of a comprehensive restructuring plan called “Bases to Battlefield.” Its conclusions were blunt: “We have become more lethal, but we have become heavy. We have lost speed. To reset the balance, we must return to our Spartan roots—fast, lethal, and austere.” Its goal was audacious: reduce the average soldier’s use of fuel on the battlefield 25 percent by 2015 and 50 percent by 2025.

I FIRST HEARD about India 3/5 at a gathering of energy nerds. It was November 2010, during the annual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference, which seeks to understand decision-making around energy. At the time, climate hawks across the country were exhausted and depressed. Republicans were poised for huge electoral victories, premised in part on their rejection of the sustainable-energy initiatives championed by President Obama and the Democrats.

Toward the end of lunch on day two, in the cavernous dining hall of the Hyatt in Sacramento, California, several hundred attendees pushed their desserts around their plates, checked BlackBerrys, and yawned. A short promotional video about Marines training with solar panels was shown, the lights came up, and there was Colonel Bob “Brutus” Charette, a military man out of central casting, broad of shoulder and square of jaw, squinting at the assembled crowd. 

“Those Marines have since deployed to Afghanistan,” he said somberly. “They’ve had 14 killed. They’ve had over 38 wounded.” Heads turned up. Forks stopped clinking. A hush fell. 

“Our dependence on power generation puts us directly at risk,” Charette continued. The solution, he said, requires not only advances in technology but a shift in mentality. “We’re going to change the way we think.” Behind him flashed an image of a buzz-cut grunt surrounded by screaming drill sergeants. “In the Marine Corps,” Charette said with a grin, “behavior change is easy.” By the time he’d finished, the crowd was whooping and hollering like, well, a Tea Party rally. 

It had been just over a year since Charette, a decorated 25-year Marine aviator with combat experience in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and both Iraq wars, was tasked by Conway with running the newly created Expeditionary Energy Office. “I had zero Beltway experience,” he says now, still bemused. “As an F-18 pilot, I was a serial abuser of fuel. It just goes to show the Marine Corps has a sense of humor.” 

Charette’s orders were simple: Reduce the use of energy and bottled water on the battlefield. Find ways to generate power and purify water autonomously. Make Marines more combat effective. And do it quickly.

An assessment completed shortly before Charette’s appointment had found pervasive inefficiencies in the way electricity was being used in the field: too many generators, running at too low a capacity, with too much of the resulting power going to waste. Small forward bases with as few as 30 Marines used ten-kilowatt generators to produce one kilowatt of power, often to cool poorly insulated tents. Generators consumed more than half the 200,000 gallons of fuel a day used by Marines in Afghanistan. 

Charette assembled a team on the fly, tapping representatives from the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, as well as contracting and acquisitions departments—plus, he chuckles, “lawyers to keep us out of jail, because we were moving so fast.” By December they had issued a request for information to private industry, seeking technologies that could meet battlefield requirements. 

Three months later, the Marines established Experimental Forward Operating Base One (ExFOB-1), a kind of battlefield test kitchen, at Quantico, Virginia. By August 2010, Marines from India 3/5 were training there with the four technologies that made it through the gauntlet, including Greens and Spaces, along with insulating tent liners and low-power LED lights. By September they were toting solar panels through Sangin District. 

“It’s an interesting challenge,” Charette reflects wryly, “to take a solar panel to a Marine and say, ‘Listen, this is going to make your life better.’” 

At first, he says, his team “couldn’t get Marines to look at this stuff.” But after India 3/5 showed that the gear could power a forward base and reduce a patrol load by 700 pounds, “word spread like wildfire.” The technologies from ExFOB-1 are now being widely distributed; by early 2012, the Marine Corps expects to have them in the hands of every infantry unit in Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, the Expeditionary Energy Office ran ExFOB-2 in Twentynine Palms, in California’s Mojave Desert, in June. Several technologies tested there, including hybrid generators (solar with diesel backup) and solar-powered refrigerators (to cool purified water), were deployed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in August. They are expected to fully power a battalion command operations center, a significant step up in scale from the patrol bases of India 3/5. “Young Marines have adapted to this faster than we’d ever thought,” says Charette.

The effort has covered ground so quickly in part because of the Corps’s relentless, non-ideological pragmatism. They have looked everywhere for good ideas, including the other armed services, development groups, and … Burning Man. In August, Marine Corps representatives traveled to the alternative arts festival to visit the Playagon, a camp where humanitarian-minded futurists and gear geeks, many ex-military, test disaster-relief technology in the austere conditions of the Nevada desert. 

“They’re reaching out into all the non-traditional venues they can find,” says Eric Rasmussen, a 25-year Navy veteran who now leads relief efforts in places like Haiti and Indonesia. “That’s pretty damn smart.”

THE MARINE CORPS is the smallest of the armed forces, with just over 200,000 active-duty soldiers and a budget of less than $30 billion—around 4 percent of U.S. military spending. In terms of sheer numbers, energy markets will likely be more affected by the Air Force seeking alternative fuels for its planes, the Navy for its ships, or the Army for its large, enduring bases. But the Marines’ progress in expeditionary energy could have an impact well beyond the gallons or dollars involved. 

For one thing, battlefield success will focus attention on the tactical advantages of small-scale, distributed renewable energy. Christine Parthemore, a fellow at the independent Washington, D.C.–based Center for a New American Security, credits India 3/5 with accelerating a “shift in thinking” that has military brass willing to go beyond merely using fossil fuels more efficiently. This was apparent in the Operational Energy Strategy, released by the Department of Defense in June, which prioritizes diversifying energy sources and, specifically, hails the Marines’ experience in Helmand province. 

For another, the Marines’ efforts will drive R&D that could bring down prices for the kinds of technologies desperately needed in regions affected by war, poverty, or natural disasters. The same solar panels and LED lights that worked for India 3/5 could be utilized in remote villages or refugee camps. This is of more than altruistic interest to the Pentagon. Even under Donald Rumsfeld’s leadership, the Department of Defense acknowledged that “stability operations are a core U.S. military mission.”

But what about the gridlock over energy policy back in Washington? Penetrating that dysfunction makes eliminating fuel from military operations look easy. The late-summer bankruptcy of solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which received more than half a billion dollars in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, has some in Congress once again questioning whether clean energy is worth supporting at all. 

For a certain demographic, energy efficiency will always be associated with a sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter, and renewable energy with barefoot hippies. Weak. Unreliable. Fey, even. In an August Wall Street Journal op-ed, for example, retired rear admiral and former CIA branch chief Robert James lamented that his compatriots in the military have been taken in by “fads and political correctness,” hoping to “stay abreast of the latest style” by parading about in trendy “green paraphernalia.” He asked, in consternation, “What better way to give away your position than by erecting a three-story windmill?”

James’s rant was notable for its total ignorance of what’s actually happening in the field and, even more so, for its dripping disdain at the very idea that the Pentagon would be consorting with the patchouli crowd. (Wait until he hears about Burning Man.) That contempt for “green” has proven remarkably resilient in conservative circles, surviving even epochal red-state conversions like Wal-Mart’s pledge to go zero-carbon. But conventional wisdom may slowly be moving in a smarter direction. According to energy analyst Amory Lovins, who has consulted with the military for more than 30 years and who posted a withering response to James’s editorial on environmental-news site Grist.org, the admiral’s dismissive attitude is “now confined to the uninformed, and their ranks are dwindling rapidly.” Seeing a picture of a grinning Marine standing next to a still-functioning solar panel riddled with bullet holes makes it difficult to cast renewables as an effete liberal preoccupation. 

Even so, when I asked Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope about the impact of the Marines’ work, he had little hope of immediate political progress. “Forward bases with solar technology won’t end this rerun of the Civil War,” he said. “But when it does end, the landscape will look very different. The American military will be greener than the Sierra Club.”

That’s probably not how Navy Secretary Mabus would put it, but in August he announced a mandatory program at the Naval Postgraduate School that will give Navy and Marine leadership intense training in energy policy and technology. And an explicit part of Charette’s mandate is to help develop new Marine Corps doctrine to be drummed into the heads of impressionable young recruits in basic training. As it says in “Bases to Battlefields,” “Our warrior ethos must equate the efficient use of energy and water resources with increased combat effectiveness.” 

Some 30,000 Marines leave the service every year to reenter civilian life. Soon, every one of them will carry the core conviction that dependence on fossil fuels is a source of risk and that smart energy strategy can be a source of competitive advantage. They will find their way into positions of influence in the private economy and in government, spreading the gospel of sustainable energy into communities where environmentalist is an epithet. 

“I was skeptical,” India 3/5’s First Lieutenant Patterson says of his feelings on renewable energy before his experience in the Sangin District. “But I’m completely sold on it.”

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