When Captain Brett Hunt separated from the U.S. Army after four years of service, he felt like a lot of military personnel do: “I wanted to find some way to continue to serve our country and be a part of a larger mission.” Hunt found that sense of purpose by volunteering with Operation Free (OF, operationfree.net), a coalition of military veterans and national security experts that advocates for renewable energy (RE) as a matter of national security.
“By developing new technologies, fuels, and renewable sources of power, the United States can protect its troops while they carry out the mission abroad and provide security to its citizens here at home,” says Jaclyn Houser, advocacy director for Operation Free. OF began as a program of the Truman National Security Project, a progressive leadership institute in Washington, D.C. The group kicked off its campaign in 2009 with a 29-state bus tour during which veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars spoke to communities about how fossil fuel dependence and climate change threaten national security. As part of the campaign launch, 150 veterans also flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with senators and White House staff to advocate for clean energy and climate legislation.
“Reducing our dependency on oil is an issue I am passionate about,” Hunt says. “Right now, we are dependent on the least-secure parts of the world for much of what fuels our economy. We can continue to put our economy and national security at risk by relying on a finite fossil fuel, or we can choose a safe, secure future powered by clean, renewable sources.”
Hunt is one of more than 5,000 veterans and national security experts working with OF. “No one wants to go to war less than our men and women in uniform. They know we’ve paid too much in blood abroad because of our energy choices,” says Mike Wu, OF’s advocacy policy director and also an officer in the U.S. Army JAG Corps Reserves.
For Hunt, who served in Iraq and Kuwait, the issue of America’s oil dependency is personal. “I would go on convoys at night to move fuel through dangerous territories. Fuel convoys were repeatedly the targets of roadside attacks that resulted in casualties. We risked our lives to transport and protect fuel needed to power generators. In those moments, I intimately understood how our dependence on oil makes our country vulnerable,” Hunt recalls.
In addition to pushing for RE investment at home, OF has been a key voice in advocating for policies that support the use of RE and energy-efficient technologies in the battle zone. While the military has made strides in recent years, more needs to be done, according to former naval officer Andrea Marr, who was deployed three times to the Persian Gulf during her five years of active-duty service.
“In the battle zone, virtually any maneuver involving fuel is dangerous,” says Marr. “It was difficult to reconcile that we were putting our lives on the line to protect rusty, dreadful-looking oil platforms in the middle of the Persian Gulf. I would look to the horizon and the flags blowing in the wind, and wonder how many lives could be saved if we used more renewable energy—in the battle zone and at home.”
In 2013 alone, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) spent more than $20 billion on energy and consumed more than 5 billion gallons of oil. Motivated to reduce operational costs and improve energy security at home, the military stepped up its commitment to reduce fossil fuel dependency, both on the battlefield and at bases stateside. Each branch outlined RE targets designed to meet the DOD’s voluntary goal for 25% of total facility energy consumption to come from RE sources by 2025.
In the battlefield, the Army and Marines are using portable solar arrays to power critical equipment at remote camps, reducing the number of dangerous fuel convoys and the demand on traditional generators. Additionally, several bases in Afghanistan now rely almost entirely on solar for electricity.
Stateside, wind- and solar-powered military bases have reduced the military’s reliance on civilian transmission infrastructure and fossil-fueled power plants. This allows bases to operate independently if needed, alleviating security risks posed by blackouts and other potential attacks. With its energy supply less dependent on fossil fuel, the DOD would be less vulnerable to global supply and price disruptions.
This shift to RE sources serves the military’s larger goal of combating climate change and mitigating national security risks. However, the decision has met some opposition—on a number of occasions, members of Congress have tried to block budget authorizations for military programs aimed at developing non-fossil-fuel-based energy technologies.
OF veterans are working at the federal, state, and local levels to push skeptical lawmakers on policies that promote RE, particularly those addressing programs within and across branches of service. Drawing on their wartime experiences, they offer a unique perspective that is helping bridge the partisan divide on climate change and RE investment. The veterans also speak to the economic advantages of energy security and job creation.
OF’s stance, which asserts that climate change threatens the military’s mission abroad and national security at home, echoes that of experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies—the world’s rising sea levels, superstorms, catastrophic floods, and droughts have the potential to trigger resource conflicts and pandemics that could topple governments and destabilize entire regions. Security experts contend that such climate-induced events not only send ripples through the global economy, but also require U.S. military intervention that stretches resources thin and distracts from more critical threats, creating potential opportunities for terrorist attacks.
“Look no further than Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy. Key military resources had to be diverted to manage the aftermath of those storms. Or consider how the drought in the Sudan spurred conflict, or how the flood in Pakistan displaced millions, leaving a vast ungoverned area for terrorism to take hold,” Hunt says.
While OF’s mission may focus primarily on the military in the short term, Wu says the effect will be far-reaching in the long term. Through its procurement power alone, the DOD has the ability to transform markets. “As the world’s single largest energy consumer, the U.S. military has the power to be one the greatest catalysts of change in the fight against climate change,” Wu says.