WASHINGTON — No one would mistake them for tree-huggers, but America's professional warriors are marching in step with environmentalists and conservationists and green is rapidly becoming the "in" color, not just for the Army but throughout the U.S. military.
On Dec. 17, the Air Force will dedicate the largest solar array in North America at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, on the same day that a C-17 transport plane makes the Air Force's first cross-country flight using a blend of synthetic fuel.
Giant wind turbines rise from the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Army leaders are embracing hybrid vehicles, fuel cells and other emerging technologies, to help troops on the battlefield and to curb fuel consumption.
To the pleasant surprise of some environmental groups, the military services have rescued endangered animals that make their homes on training bases or bombing ranges, wresting some bird species back from the brink of extinction.
"They care about the environment as much as the rest of us," said Brock Evans, the president of the Endangered Species Coalition, while acknowledging that his statement "sounds like an oxymoron."
The military's unlikely alliance with the green movement began well over a decade ago but it's expanded dramatically in recent years with the soaring price of fuel and President Bush's pledge to end America's dependence on foreign oil.
Part of it stems from genuine social awareness, military leaders said, but there's a hefty financial incentive as well: Cutting soaring fuel and energy costs is essential to help hold the line on wartime military budgets.
The Department of Defense is the largest energy consumer in the United States, racking up an energy bill of $13.6 billion last year, up from $10.9 billion the year before. The military services and other components of the defense establishment consume the equivalent of 340,000 barrels of oil a day, or 1.5 percent of total U.S. energy consumption.
Accordingly, every branch of the service has become ambitiously proactive in curbing consumption and moving away from conventional energy sources.
The measures range from insisting that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines turn off the lights in the barracks to exotic research into future technology. Military researchers are looking into new designs for ships, aircraft, land vehicles and propulsion systems with an eye toward cutting energy costs.
"In essence, the Army is building green, buying green and going green," said Tad Davis, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health.
The Air Force plans to showcase its latest go-green contribution with this month's ribbon-cutting to dedicate 140 acres of solar panels at Nellis, near one of the most gaudily lighted cities in America: Las Vegas. The solar array could save the Air Force $1 million annually in energy expenses.
The simultaneous coast-to-coast C-17 flight will advance the service's expanding program to lessen its dependence on oil. The Air Force has been testing aircraft with a 50-50 blend of synthetic (derived from natural gas) and conventional fuels and hopes to certify the service's entire fleet for the synfuel blend by 2011.
Other undertakings are in the works, Air Force Assistant Secretary Bill Anderson said. The service has asked industry to submit proposals "pushing the envelope to the next level" to create a round-the-clock source of alternative power at bases.
The Air Force also is looking into the feasibility of equipping a base with a small nuclear power plant. But Anderson acknowledges that that idea "is very much in its infancy."
The Army's energy strategy includes measures to pare consumption and reduce pollution, the Army's Davis said. The service, for example, switched out fire-suppression systems in its Stryker combat systems to get rid of ozone-depleting halon, which could contribute to global warming.
Army officials are looking into next-generation hybrid vehicles and alternative power sources on the battlefield — possibly wind or solar — to reduce the need for conventional fuel. An important side benefit in war zones would be lessening the dependency on fuel-truck convoys, which face the threat of ambushes or roadside bombs.
"Every time we send out convoys we put American lives at risk," said Al Shaffer, the deputy director of defense research and engineering for the Defense Department.
All the services are enforcing new building standards at their installations to include more durable material, more efficient heating and cooling systems and other energy-oriented measures. Solar panels often are placed on the roofs of carports.
The Navy Department, which includes the Marines, long has been at the forefront of alternative energy development. A 280-megawatt power plant runs on geothermal energy — heat from the ground — at the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California. Four 275-foot-tall wind turbines at Guantanamo Bay have helped save an estimated $1.2 million a year that otherwise would have been spent on fossil fuel.
Environmental groups credit the Navy for aggressive preservation programs that helped repopulate threatened bird species such as the snowy plover and the California least tern. California's San Clemente loggerhead shrike, found on Navy-owned San Clemente Island, had dwindled to only five breeding pairs in the 1990s before service officials worked with wildlife advocates to help restore the species.
Donald R. Schregardus, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy who oversees environmental programs, said the military initially played "catch-up" in responding to environmental challenges but had become more aggressive over the past 15 or 20 years. The shift, in part, reflects society's generational changes, he said.
"We have a tremendous resource in the men and women of the armed services who have grown up with the environmental ethic," he said. "It's the right thing to do. We're trying to be true stewards of the environment."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007