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Solar Power In A War Zone

We're in the sixth year of war in Iraq, and journalists can still write stories about how most Iraqis only get a few hours of electricity per day. (What's that like? See this piece, complete with a vignette of an Iraqi woman who, when the lights suddenly flicker on, dashes off to try to shove a load of laundry through the washing machine and plop the kids before a television for some peace and quiet before the power shuts off again.) But here's a new—and green—twist in the Los Angeles Times today: Some Iraqis are looking at solar power as a possible solution, especially now that oil prices are doing what they're doing.

Solar panels are still too expensive to power Iraq's national grid all by themselves, but they're certainly up for smaller tasks like keeping streetlamps running 24/7 and can offer a more distributed source of energy that's harder for saboteurs to disrupt. Two years ago, a U.S. Marine commander in Iraq wrote a memo suggesting that the military should rely more heavily on renewable power for similar reasons—it's decentralized, harder to disrupt, and would reduce the need for fuel convoys and all the costs (not to mention the dangers) associated with hauling fuel around a war zone.

No idea if anything ever came of it, though. While the U.S. military has been using a fair bit of renewable power for some time, especially at off-grid locations (the naval station at Guantanamo, for instance, gets a good chunk of its electricity from four massive wind turbines), I've never seen more than scattered rumors that the Pentagon would like to make a major push on renewables.

Update: Amory Lovins had a great deal to say on this subject in an interview with Grist's Dave Roberts last year:

If you build an efficient, diverse, dispersed, renewable electricity system, major failures—whether by accident or malice—become impossible by design rather than inevitable by design, an attractive nuisance for terrorists and insurgents. There's a pretty good correlation between neighborhoods with better electrical supply and those that are inhospitable to insurgents. This is well known in military circles. There's still probably just time to do this in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, about a third of our army's wartime fuel use is for generator sets, and nearly all of that electricity is used to air-condition tents in the desert, known as "space cooling by cooling outer space." We recently had a two-star Marine general commanding in western Iraq begging for efficiency and renewables to untether him from fuel convoys, so he could carry out his more important missions. This is a very teachable moment for the military. The costs, risks, and distractions of fuel convoys and power supplies in theater have focused a great deal of senior military attention on the need for not dragging around this fat fuel-logistics tail—therefore for making military equipment and operations several-fold more energy efficient.

I've been suggesting that approach for many years. Besides its direct benefits for the military mission, it will drive technological refinements that then help transform the civilian car, truck, and plane industries. That has huge leverage, because the civilian economy uses 60-odd times more oil than the Pentagon does, even though the Pentagon is the world's biggest single buyer of oil (and of renewable energy). Military energy efficiency is technologically a key to leading the country off oil, so nobody needs to fight over oil and we can have "negamissions" in the Gulf. Mission unnecessary. The military leadership really likes that idea.

--Bradford Plumer