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Mean, Not Green: Military Forces and Clean Energy Deployment

Various military forces around the world have adopted a variety of energy efficiency and clean-energy approaches, from how they run permanent bases to experiments with fueling combat equipment with biofuels. With reason, many of those concerned about a clean-energy future and the need to take action to mitigate human-driven climate change have embraced these moves often without fully understanding substantive, underlying motivations.

While there are substantive reasons to point to the military’s embrace of clean-energy, in no small part because military forces are powerful interest groups in essentially every nation and are among the most respected institution in many nations, too often people mistakenly make a leap from military leveraging clean energy to ‘they are climate warriors’. “Green” rhetoric from militaries, such as former U.S. Secretary of the Navy’s promotion of the “Great Greeen Fleet” and the Danish “Green Defence Strategy“, did nothing to assuage the mistaken impression that militaries were somehow ‘going green to be green’.

While there are, in many military forces, elements and individuals who do wish to see climate action, who do care about reducing environmental impacts, to view military efficiency and clean-energy moves through this lens truly misses the boat. These measures need to be viewed from a utilitarian lens: improving capabilities; reducing costs; and reducing risks.

And, a clear-headed look will never forgot a core reality: military forces are, at their essence, about destroying things and killing people. Military forces are the absolute embodiment of the state’s monopoly on power.  Everything else about militaries is simply a LIC (lesser-included case) of this fundamental reality.

To understand this intersection, that clean-energy is about capabilities, costs, and reduced risks and not, principally, about improving environmental footprints for footprint, it is useful to look at a case where renewable energy is integrated into an environmentally destructive military activity.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese are on a building spree — creating artificial islands with essentially zero regard to the havoc this construction is having on fragile reefs and the environment.

China has spent years building military outposts on a group of contested islands in the South China Sea — a project that has left the country at odds with many of its neighbors and the United States.

First, there was the dredging, in which ships sucked sediment from the seabed and pumped it atop formerly undeveloped reefs. Then came the buildings — once said to be for civilian purposes but which analysts now say are small military installations — followed quickly by international uproar.

But the building continued. Now, some of the islands that are part of the group known as the Spratlys, where China began large-scale development in 2013, have been transformed from barren reefs into military outposts

These military facilities are a highly provocative move to expand (de facto) Chinese territory (to control resources and for military purposes) and, in any decent interpretation out there, in violation of international law and of agreements with other nations (ASEAN).

The above were already well known and established facts. Recently released photos make public many previously unknown details. The Philippine Daily Inquirer‘s exclusive story had a number of photos of the facilities, annotated with details. Look at the photo below and consider the point of this post.


Photo: Philippine Daily Inquirer

Note that clean energy, the wind turbines and those clean electrons that are ever so good for the planet. And, it isn’t just wind turbines.

Facilities here include a small port, two helipads, three possible satellite communication antennae, two possible radar towers, six possible security and surveillance towers for weapons, four possible weapons towers, a lighthouse, a solar farm and two wind turbines, AMTI says.

The Chinese military (whether the PLA or the PLAN) did not put wind turbines and solar panels on these constructed islands out of some good-hearted desire to be environmentally friendly. A reminder: these constructed bases are incredibly destructive projects, with dredging through and concrete covering fragile reefs.

Islands are on the leading edge for renewable energy as the standard electricity supply is from diesel generators: between the raw cost of the fuel, the transport, and storage, the FBCE (fully-burdened cost of energy/electricity) for diesel generators on islands can often exceed $0.50 per kilowatt hour or roughly 5x what it costs on, for example, the US mainland electricity grid.

For military forces, even more importantly, that fuel delivery creates risks — a logistics pipeline that can be disrupted by natural (storms) events or attacked by adversaries amid conflict.

Thus, putting wind turbines solar panels on these constructed military base islands has almost certainly (little to) nothing to do with “green” and everything to do with cutting costs and reducing risks (increasing capabilities).

And, if the wind turbines are there for ‘greening’ purposes/credit somehow within the Chinese system, they are tiny greenwashing cherries placed on top of a massive  environmental damage sundae.

The basic point:

  • Military forces — at their core — are about killing people and destroying things.
    • Yes, they can do other things: maintain civil order, provide disaster relief, enforce laws (interdict smugglers), … But, these are LIC (lesser included cases) enabled by buying/building/maintaining forces that can kill people and destroy things.
  • Renewable energy and energy efficiency are valued most by military forces when they (directly or indirectly) strengthen the force’s ability to do those things.
    • E.g.,  the military has a job to do, and if renewable energy helps them to do it, then they’re all for it.

In short, military renewable energy and energy efficiency investments are NOT about ‘green’ or some sort of environmental activism but are paths to strengthen the military forces.

The power of military adoption of clean energy paths remains important, however, for moving forward to a more sensible energy future. Not because those in uniform are “green hippies” but explicitly because military organizations (writ large) are not. They are utilitarian and increasingly find that going ‘clean’ makes them more effective at a lower-cost than the polluting energy options. This clear utility model for clean energy is increasingly true across economies and societies.

NOTES:

  • Around the world, not all militaries have the same approach to environmental issues. Military forces operate under different national laws and policies. Thus, the Chinese Spratley Islands development is perhaps an extreme example to make the point but a relevant example nonetheless.
  • The PRC isn’t the only nation installing renewable energy systems in the Spratleys. Here is a ROC (Taiwan) 2011 deployment of solar electricity and hot water along with energy efficiency systems.

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