Suspicion is growing among Republican lawmakers that the Defense Department's efforts to move to renewable energy are more about politics than they are about saving lives and boosting security, as officials claim.
The Pentagon's green push -- including outfitting Marines and soldiers with solar gear, testing aircraft and ships on biofuels and building renewable power plants at bases -- won supporters from both sides of the aisle over the past year as leaders drew a clear line between the technologies and military might.
Stories about how solar equipment allowed units in Afghanistan to carry fewer batteries and more ammunition helped prompt eight Republicans and 15 Democrats -- many of whom hold vastly opposing views on national energy policy -- to last summer form the Defense Energy Security Caucus, which aims to educate Congress on military energy issues, including "the strategic value of utilizing sustainable energy" (E&E Daily, July 8, 2011).
And at a subcommittee hearing with the Pentagon's top energy and environment officials last spring, lawmakers were more concerned about where the solar panels being installed at military installations were made than with the policy behind the projects in the first place (E&E Daily, April 14, 2011).
But as election-year politics ramp up and Republicans target the Obama administration for its clean energy programs, especially its investment in failed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, the military's attempts to move to alternative energy are coming under new scrutiny.
"Obama is hiding new renewable energy bets at the Pentagon, charging our Defense Department with major investments in 'low-emissions economic development' while cutting their budget by $5.1 billion," Catrina Rorke, director of energy policy at the center-right American Action Forum, wrote in a blog post following the Obama administration's budget release last week. "New energy spending is new energy spending, no matter where it happens."
The idea that the administration is using DOD as a more politically palatable vehicle for renewable energy investments is now reverberating across Capitol Hill, even as Pentagon officials flatly deny the allegations.
At a budget hearing last week, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the department's most high-profile alternative energy advocate, took volley after volley from Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. They said that his priorities were misplaced, argued that spending on clean energy was taking money out of more important missions and hinted at a link between the Pentagon's green efforts and the prominence of former Silicon Valley clean-tech investors within the Obama administration.
"You're not the secretary of the energy, you're the secretary of the Navy," said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who leads the subcommittee with jurisdiction over military energy and environment issues.
Prime among the lawmakers' complaints was that the military is paying a higher price for some forms of alternative energy at a time when DOD proposes cutting weapons programs and reducing forces in order to meet budget mandates.
"You've bought fuel, blended [bio]fuel for the jets to fly at almost four times the cost of traditional energy," Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said to Mabus, referring to the $12 million the Navy is paying for 450,000 gallons of advanced biofuel to power a carrier strike group during exercises off the coast of Hawaii this summer (Greenwire, Dec. 5, 2011). "So in order to make up for that difference, will those planes fly a quarter of the time they would have otherwise flown as part of this exercise?"
Mabus countered that the Navy's plans to transition to biofuels are aimed at reducing the military's reliance on foreign suppliers of oil and that studies predict the price will be competitive by 2020, when he aims to have half the service's energy consumption coming from alternative sources.
"I think we would be irresponsible if we did not reduce our dependence on foreign oil and if we did not reduce the price shocks that come with the global oil market," Mabus told Conaway, noting that the department faced an additional $1.1 billion in fuel bills when oil prices spiked last spring.
Pentagon says it's not political
Across the Potomac River from Capitol Hill, the Pentagon's top energy officials say they are baffled by the sudden controversy.
"We were building the policy case and the cost-benefit analysis [for our renewable energy projects] well before anyone in America knew what Solyndra was," said Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy, who is overseeing plans for a major build-out of renewable energy projects on Army bases. "I'm not following any political agenda."
Most of that build-out, in fact, does not show up in the DOD's budget. The military is relying heavily on third-party financing to build solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects on its bases.
The majority of the $1 billion that DOD requested for energy conservation measures in its fiscal 2013 budget proposal would go to energy efficiency and demand reduction efforts, said Dorothy Robyn, the top official for military bases. Nine percent of the military's energy funds are going to alternative energy programs, she said.
Whereas the Energy Department's much-debated clean-tech programs were aimed at boosting the industry and sparking new technologies, DOD officials insist that their efforts are focused on one thing alone: Finding the best way of powering military missions.
"We like renewable energy ... but the more aggressive stance toward it is linked to the growing concern about the vulnerability of the grid," Robyn said. "How we're doing it and how much we're doing it is very much of a departmental thing."