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October 17, 2021

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Renewable energy critical for national security, panelists say

National Clean Energy Summit 9.0

Mikayla Whitmore

Marine Corps Lieutenant General Richard C. Zilmer (Ret.) speaks during a panel called Advanced Energy Innovation and National Security at the National Clean Energy Summit 9.0 at the Bellagio Resort and Casino on October 13, 2017.

National Clean Energy Summit 9.0

Former Vice President Al Gore gives the keynote address during the National Clean Energy Summit 9.0 at the Bellagio on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. Launch slideshow »

In a war zone, solar panels or wind turbines might not sound like critical needs.

But when Marine Lt. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer was fighting in Iraq in 2006, he realized that renewable energy sources were a life-and-death priority.

The reason: A substantial number of U.S. soldiers were being killed or wounded while traveling in convoys, and the purpose for a significant percentage of those convoys was to deliver fuel for generators to desert outposts. Reduce the need for that fuel, Zilmer recognized, and lives could be saved.

Zilmer, now retired, sent what is known in the military as “urgent needs statement” to his superiors asking for study on how to develop more renewables for military use.

“It got a lot of traction,” he said today at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas.

The need for alternatives to fuel-powered generators was not only related to saving lives, but resources. Zilmer said that during World War II, it required approximately one gallon of fuel per day per soldier for the U.S. to fight in Europe. In Iraq, he said, that amount had grown to 22 gallons. Sending out a fuel convoy involved mobilizing quick-reaction forces in case the vehicles were attacked, clearing obstacles and launching aircraft to eliminate threats and provide air support.

“So we got some of our smart guys with a background in technology together and said … we need to find a way to reduce this heavy burden of keeping our forces fueled,” Zilmer said.

Today, the military has increased its use of renewables. Nellis Air Force Base, for example, built two solar generation fields that produce a combined 28.2 megawatts of power and have helped the base become less at risk of losing power through a grid failure.

“It’s not necessarily about being greener,” Zilmer said. “It’s about being lighter, faster and more lethal on the battlegrounds of the future.”

Zilmer was part of a panel examining national security issues tied to climate change and renewable energy.

Vice Admiral (Ret.) Lee Gunn said global warming was creating a major challenge for the Navy in the Arctic Ocean, where the melting of sea ice may soon open shipping lanes that had previously been too difficult or dangerous to navigate.

“The Russians are planning for this. They’re building a fleet,” Gunn said, adding that China also was making preparations to expand its Arctic Ocean operations. He said the U.S., meanwhile, has two heavy icebreakers, only one of which is currently in operation.

“Neither the U.S. nor our Canadian neighbors have adequate search-and-rescue operations for the Arctic,” Gunn said.

Gunn and Zilmer said climate change was causing international geopolitical shifts that would alter U.S. military policy. Populations will migrate and conflicts will break out as rising sea levels and climate changes that leave farmland unproductive force people away from their homes.

“We are sitting on the threshold of a major change,” Zilmer said. “The demographics of this world are changing.”

At home, meanwhile, National Guard forces need development of alternative energy in order to respond to disasters where the power grid is knocked out, said panel member William B. Blaylock, a National Guard brigadier general.

“It doesn’t matter if power grid is up or down, we still have to respond,” he said. “We’re trying to develop microgram capability, so we can operate off the grid.”

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