Capt. John Hickey was on a mission.
The commanding officer at Honolulu's U.S. Coast Guard Integrated Support Command was determined to save energy on his base when the data server manager bluntly refused, saying he would not slow his machines until the last drop of oil was extracted from Alaska's protected lands.
"I said to him, 'OK, we're at war,'" recounted Hickey, who called supervisors in Washington to eventually override the man's intransigence.
The episode illustrates some of how far the U.S. military, the nation's single largest energy consumer -- at more than 1 percent of the U.S. total -- has come in recognizing and reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. But experts say it also indicates just how far the military still has to go. In 2006 alone, the Pentagon bought 110 million barrels of oil and 3.8 billion kilowatts of electricity. To put that in perspective, it's about what the entire world uses each day.
Experts say making strides will require changing the culture of an institution accustomed to having everything it needs to get its job done.
"For so many years, energy and water were free commodities," said Tad Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for environment, safety and occupational health, speaking at a conference in Denver, Colo., earlier this year.
Top-level efforts to upend this notion are under way at the Department of Defense (DOD) as the agency looks to remake how it powers operations and consumes energy. While the military by itself won't make a market for plug-in hybrid vehicles or algae-based jet fuel, its investment power can bump emerging climate-friendly technologies onto a larger commercial stage.
No tree-huggers here
Several policies already are under way. A presidential order currently requires federal departments to cut energy and water demand and use more renewable energy every year. In addition, Congress has mandated that the military consider climate change in its long-term planning.
DOD itself is finishing a strategic energy security plan and testing how to factor fuel demand into purchasing, acquisition and long-term research and development decisions. Meanwhile, it is also sizing up its carbon "bootprint" (see related story) and evaluating climate change risks in its upcoming defense review.
The Pentagon, however, cannot be expected to pursue a traditional "green" path, said Davis.
"What we can't allow us to become is a bunch of well-meaning, well-intended, well-educated environmental folks sitting around the fireplace singing 'Kumbaya,'" he said. "If we are really going to be successful, it has to be embedded in our mission."
The notion reflects a growing recognition within DOD that the military's profligate energy consumption in fact has everything to do with that mission.
Alan Shaffer, DOD's principal deputy director for defense research and engineering, makes the argument with numbers. In 2008, the military spent more than $20 billion on energy, almost double the $10.9 billion spent in 2006, mostly because of the spike in oil prices. Much of that money went directly to unstable oil-producing countries, which themselves threaten U.S. security. In total, DOD accounts for about 80 percent of the federal government's energy demand.
But with the military's $513-billion-dollar budget in fiscal year 2009, cost isn't even what's mainly driving the push. It is forces in Iraq and Afghanistan who are feeling the most glaring repercussions of intense fuel demands. Delivering that fuel in unsafe regions puts troops at risk and diverts resources from the mission at hand, leaders have recognized.
Seeing the military mission through a new lens
The Army's fuel consumption rose more than 10 times between recent peace and wartime periods, said Shaffer. The difference lies in the 20,000 tankers carrying fuel to deployed troops. Fuel convoys have become prime targets for insurgents and their improvised explosives, feeding a cycle that diverts more man and equipment power to protect the supply lines.
According to a recent report by the Center for Naval Analyses, a military think tank, the 2003 Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq burned 90 percent of its ground fuel in the very vehicles needed to deliver and protect the remaining 10 percent.
According to Shaffer, nearly three-quarters of what convoys move in Afghanistan's treacherous terrain is fuel or water. And an infantryman on a 24-hour foot mission will need to carry 30 to 40 pounds of batteries for the power-hungry equipment he's hauling, slowing the soldier down and increasing his exposure.
The vulnerability of the domestic electric grid, the growing threat of climate change, and the prospect of energy being deployed as a "strategic weapon" by countries that control its supply are all additional drivers for change.
But the motives weren't always so obvious. It wasn't really until the late 1990s that a few in DOD leadership began to question the department's use of fuels in combat, according to Tom Morehouse, a consultant who helped draft the resulting Defense Science Board report.
If the Abrams tanks used in Operation Desert Shield -- the U.S. mission to strategically protect Saudia Arabia's oil reserves from Saddam Hussein -- were 50 percent more fuel efficient, the military's buildup might have taken five months instead of six, its study noted.
For the first time, Morehouse said, insiders were linking energy consumption to the military's "mission" effectiveness, an argument that would get leadership's attention.
Every solider driving a fuel truck is one less with a rifle in his hand, as Morehouse puts it. And if planners added up the "fully burdened cost of fuel" -- the price of all the convoys, soldiers, and equipment dedicated to moving and protecting supply lines -- efficiency investments might not seem so expensive, the Defense Science Board argued.
Iraq: an energy wake-up call
That was 2001. "And then September came, and the world changed," remembered Morehouse. "The report got put on the shelf."
Fast-forward five years. U.S. causalities were growing in Iraq as insurgents targeted vulnerable fuel supply convoys, so much that Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, U.S. commander in the Al Anbar province of Iraq, put out an urgent request for renewable power supplies.
DOD leaders cite this as a wake-up call because it came straight from the front lines. Meanwhile, oil prices were beginning to spike. Delivering fuel to the battlefield aboard an aircraft tanker cost more than $40 a gallon in 2006.
The Pentagon was caught unprepared. Now it is catching up.
Today, DOD is moving forward with plans to factor that full cost of fuel into its acquisition decisions. The Army's upcoming purchase of 150,000 Humvees to replace its current fleet will be the first test of the idea. With fuel efficiency as one of several decision criteria, the Army will weigh whether spending another $20,000 per vehicle for a 10- or 20-percent miles-per-gallon improvement, for example, will be worthwhile, Shaffer said.
Complicated cost models and new equipment aside, Capt. Chip Cotton, the director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office, said major energy efficiency improvements can be made just by changing incentives of a wasteful culture.
One problem, he said, is that commanders who reduce their energy use don't see the benefits, because the money saved is just taken away. The Navy, Cotton noted, has instituted a successful program to instead return discretionary funds to those ships that save the most energy.
Battlefield confidence is critical
In addition, many officers will want solid proof that "greener" fuels and equipment are reliable and perform just as well. Glenn Schmitt, environmental director at a Navy fleet fuel depot on Puget Sound, got a waiver to go back to jet fuel when he realized that biodiesel was clogging his engine filters, for example.
In the combat zone, commanders need to have confidence that alternative fuels and sources of power, such as solar or wind, will be reliable, said retired Adm. John Nathman, former vice chief of naval operations, who serves on the Center for Naval Analyses' Military Advisory Board.
"Part of this is that leadership needs to explain it in the right way," said Nathman. "I think the military has a way to rapidly turn around a lot of these ideas and proof them for the country, and do it in a away that's safe."
That has become a touchy area for some Navy and Air Force pilots, who are increasingly using flight simulators for training, which cuts down on jet fuel burned by planes. Jet fuel accounts for nearly three-quarters of the military's fuel use.
Pilots can resist any measures that reduce their flight time, said retired Navy Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, a former Navy aviator and aircraft carrier commander. McGinn said, however, that flight simulators work well and that "no one is suggesting we reduce the mission-readiness of our flight crews."
The same goes for the ships. "The chief of naval operations has been very clear that we are not going to sacrifice mission," said Cotton. "We're not going to maintain 12 knots when we should be going 40 knots."
In the end, the biggest change may be in DOD's desire to be seen as "green." "In the past, they felt oppressed by the coverage they received, by the image of being big polluters," said Sherri Goodman, who began pushing changes in the 1990s, while she was DOD's deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security.
"Now there is starting to be a shift -- that they can lead on this issue and provide hope for change," she said.