May 18, 2011

In Afghanistan, Meeting Near- and Long-term Energy Sustainability Goals

Later this morning, John Nagl and I are going up on the Hill
where John will join a panel of experts to discuss military fuel convoys,
energy for our bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and DOD’s need for a long-term
energy strategy that moves the U.S. military away from petroleum over the next
30 years (very much in line with the report John and Christine wrote in
September 2010, Fueling the Future Force).

In the spirit of the day, I wanted to draw attention to this
very thoughtful report published last week by ClimateWire assessing
the challenges the U.S. Army is facing with its renewable energy goals in
. The report is very good and is worth reading in full if you
haven’t already.  It reports on the
environmental challenges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is attempting to
adapt to in order to build wind turbines and other renewable energy projects
that are difficult to build in the easiest conditions, let alone in a war-torn
country. To cite just one example, a 1 megawatt wind turbine the U.S. Army hoped to
build to provide power to a new facility for Afghan security forces can’t be
built because the facility is remote, and the roads won’t support a crane large
enough to construct the turbine. Instead they have opted for smaller
10-kilowatt wind turbines. The challenges of turning the blueprints into
reality are not surprising, and this is a theme that runs through the report.

But another theme running through the report seems to be the
sustainable approach the U.S. Army has taken in developing its renewable energy
projects. And I don’t mean sustainable just in the sense that the projects help
the Army better manage energy in meeting their needs. The U.S. Army is also
building the capacity of the Afghan workers to be able to maintain these
technologies when they leave. “Building
up renewable energy at this site [the Afghan Security Forces complex] would be
an opportunity to bolster efforts to teach Afghans how such construction and
maintenance work can be performed
, [Frank] Holcomb [a senior energy
official at the U.S. Army's Construction Engineering Research Laboratory]

Holcomb told ClimateWire
that “It's
not about green technology as much as it is about sustainable solutions for
electricity and power here in Afghanistan.”
But I’d caution against that
false distinction because it doesn’t have to be one or the other; and actually
the U.S. Army and the other military services have proven it can be both. Indeed,
in the near term it is about bringing in sustainable, non-petroleum energy
solutions that help provide the military the energy it needs to do its job,
while also reducing the number of fuel convoys needed to power conventional
energy systems, like diesel generators (which is important because fuel convoys
are highly vulnerable to insurgent attack – more than 3,000
U.S. soldiers and contractors have been killed or wounded protecting them in
, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn said on April 26).

It can also be about training the indigenous population to
maintain and use the technologies once the U.S. Army has redeployed, leaving
them the intellectual knowledge to wield greener energy technology rather than rely
solely on wood-fired ovens and other carbon-intensive energy sources. What is
more, it can also provide a mechanism for generating more sustainable electricity,
which as we know from Iraq, seems to be a cornerstone for maintaining
stability. In the long term, that is good for our investment in the technology,
our national security and for the Afghans benefiting from the energy solutions.

And for those wondering about Afghan hearts and minds: providing
access to sustainable electricity probably won’t win them by itself, but it’s
certainly a step in the right direction.