ONLINE ONLY: The “Greenhawk” Moment

How the Pentagon discovered renewable energy

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At a Washington wedding last fall, James Woolsey, the bespectacled former director of the CIA during the Clinton administration, was discussing drag-racing with a ponytailed forty-ish man. Woolsey who works these days as energy consultant, recounted an adventure the previous weekend.

He had been sitting behind the wheel at a stoplight, on a small-town strip highway. Beside him, riding shotgun in Woolsey’s low-slung roadster sat another owlish older man. A teenager in a Corvette pulled up alongside. The teen revved his engine, then turned to smile at his girlfriend. “My car,” Woolsey said, “could only hum back. The light changed and by the time I looked in my rear-view mirror, the kid was a speck.” Woolsey’s quiet car was a Tesla electric that does 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, about a second faster than the latest Aston Martin. “I only wish I could see the look on his girlfriend’s face.”

The pony-tailed guest had his own energy-innovation tales to dine out on. A solar guru, he described the recent development of an ink-jet printer that sprays a carbon compound which can turn a normal piece of cloth into solar-energy-capturing material… a flexible, foldable solar panel.

The small-talk at that wedding was typical of the conversation in Georgetown these days, thanks to an unlikely new alliance of advocates for renewable energy and national security strategists. Dubbed The Greenhawks, and led by Woolsey, this coalition consider energy independence a cornerstone of national security strategy.

Woolsey’s thinking, elaborated since 9/11, is in essence this: Wahabis and friends of Ahmadinejad sit atop two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves. Dependence makes the US vulnerable from both a security and environmental perspective. In buying oil from Islamic theocracies that sponsor terror, we are funding our enemies.

While the Pentagon has always sheltered diverse, eccentric tinkerers, the convergence of environmental and military greenness was actually inspired by a conversation at a 2005 Christmas party when activist Nora Maccoby, the bride at the afore-mentioned wedding, buttonholed another guest, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I told him that the rest of the world was moving ahead with energy technology that the US had developed and was now neglecting. The Pentagon was perfectly positioned to lead a new technology revolution. If he didn’t, his only legacy was going to be war.”

The next day the Secretary e-mailed off one of his “snowflakes” to his constellation of advisors, and his memo gathered mass. Soon in-house “closet greens” came out of the woodwork. That January President Bush, an oilman from Texas, put renewable energy issues at the center of his annual State of the Union Address. The Department of Defense quietly began investing half a billion dollars in research and development of technology for tapping solar, wave, biofuel and wind. These days, the Pentagon, the headquarters of the biggest consumer of oil in the world, now literally has a solar farm in its front garden.

While not as dramatic a shift as the Royal Navy’s switch from coal-based to oil-based locomotion in 1911, the intention has taken root. What’s more, just as the decision by a young First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, tipped the geo-political center of gravity toward the empty deserts of Arabia, this one may have, to some degree, the reverse effect.

Nora Maccoby, dubbed “Envirobabe” by New York Post’s Page Six gossip column, has since been lending a hand to Mitzi Wertheim, a consultant to the DoD’s Office of Force Transformation. Wertheim convenes the “green salons,” of this new Energy Consensus and her “salonistes” have recently included military officers. Congressional staffers, and as the likes of the Saudi Ambassador to the US… who wondered if the gathered minds couldn’t focus on how to make oil a clean energy too.

It was, however, a battlefield calculation that brought the generals on board. Dan Nolan, a retired Army colonel in charge of energy projects for the Rapid Equipping Force, crunched numbers to show that, since the transport of fuel to forward bases had become the soft target favored by insurgents, energy-inefficiency was costing the Army lives. Since then, the Army has begun to deploy tents made of solar-capturing materials to supply the energy needs of the bases. And also fuel-cell-powered vehicles that take advantage of the same innovations in batteries that have made laptops so small.

Of course, the challenges facing the military are same for the private sector. So are the options for replacing oil. Currently, road transport represents 70% of US oil consumption. Ethanol derived from switchgrass (now headed down toward 70 cents per gallon) can be blended with petrol and, with minor adjustments, used in all cars. (Few experts, by the way, advocate ethanol derived from foodstuffs, as implied by UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler, who recently charged all biofuels as “a crime against humanity.”) Hybrid cars using blended fuel along with the next generation of batteries will soon be able to achieve 500 miles per gallon of gasoline (or mpgg in the new designation). What’s more, as the Tesla and the forthcoming Ferrari-like Fisker Karma show, these cars are not the products of hair-shirted environmentalism. They can leave the gas-guzzlers of the petrol age in the dust.

Doubters remain. Few Americans are likely to view Bush and Rumsfeld as environmental heroes. Some skeptics see the “greening” of the Pentagon as an attempt to re-brand a military battered by far-flung wars and the dishonor of Abu Ghraib. And clearly the US Air Force, now the #1 user of renewable energy, can’t fly jets on gin (they have nonetheless begun to experiment with synthetic fuels derived from natural gas). Other skeptics contend that the rugged individualists of middle America are as unlikely to give up their Chevy trucks as they are to give up their guns. But caveat dubitor: there are precedents for the public following the Pentagon’s adoption of new technology, including the medium on which you’re reading this article now. Remember also that when the US army broke the color barrier after WWII and began to desegregate, the rest of America followed. As the army goes green…