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The U.S. military is the nation's single largest user of energy. We hear about big plans to cut back on fossil fuels.

December 6, 2011 1:08 p.m.


Colonel Dan Nolan, US Army (retired)

Related Story: U.S. Military Going Green


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Developing renewable energy resources to take the place of fossil fuels is still a rather complex and slow paced effort in the United States , but that is not the case in the U.S. military. A presentation tonight on the USS midway museum introduces us to the Navy's plans to reduce fossil fuels by 50% in the next eight years. Military officials say their main interest in alternative energy is not necessarily saving the environment. It's really saving lives. I'd like to welcome my guest, retired U.S. Army colonel, Dan Nolan who is now CEO of sab at six, a company that consults on alternative energy technologies with the Department of Defense of the welcome to the show.

NOLAN: Thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Why is the military so keen on sustainable energy?

NOLAN: The military is taking a look at what the impact of operation for long durations has been, and identified that vulnerability to energy convoys, supply convoys, really stems from our -- the department's profligate use of energy. So they're looking at ways to reduce their energy footprint, find alternative renewable energy to supplement the conventional energy, and be smart about how they distribute that.

CAVANAUGH: Talk to us more about that. There are some statistics on the number of U.S. military who have lost their lives trying to resupply conveys with basically gasoline,; isn't that right?

NOLAN: Well, we found in our studies over there that about 70% of what we haul on the road is water and fuel. And the desert is hard to do something about water. But the department decided there's something they can coabout fuels. The casualties that have come over the last few year, 3,000, maybe a thousand deaths, were from soldiers who were protecting those convoys or driving the trucks there. So anything you can do to reduce that signature can save lives.

CAVANAUGH: In the larger picture of all of this, there are some who believe the war in Iraq was all about securing oil resources. Is that one way that oil costs lives?

NOLAN: Well, we as a nation send about a billion dollars a day overseas to purchase oil to feed our transportation requirements. The movement of that oil on the high seas requires fleets, the secure production of that oil requires a stable area, and that's been the United States' policy for some time. If we didn't have to do that, we could probably less of a presence in those regions. So we have to find alternatives.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little about how much energy the military consumes.

NOLAN: Well, for the operational side, that is the sort of water fighting side, about 300,000 barrels a day of fuel. That's what's used. If you think about those jets flying, those tanks driving, but mostly it goes into the power generation systems. The diesel generates we need to power our bases.

CAVANAUGH: And I read that the military is the nation's single largest user of energy.

NOLAN: That in fact is true. The military is the single largef. But it's only 1% of the total energy use. But again, it's the single largest. If they start taking steps to reduce demand and bring in alternatives, they can start to move society if you will.

CAVANAUGH: There's a tag line being used to describe the military's efforts to cut down on energy usage, reducing the carbon boot print. What does that mean, exactly?

NOLAN: Well, it was interesting when you first start a description about the military not being seen as being necessarily environmentally conscious. In fact, the military is very environmentally conscious because they have to be able to use that same land for train over and over again. That's sustainability. They're also looking at the impact of that carbon footprint. Of course we always have to have a special name for it, so it's a carbon boot print. Because there is a recognition of the impact of carbon on climate change.

CAVANAUGH: In what ways is the military going green?

NOLAN: The military has a mandate to reduce its energy intensity by 30% by 2016, and a mandate to get 25% of the energy they consume from renewable sources by 2025. Out in the California desert, Ford Erwin, they're building a 500 megawatt solar array which will be the largest in the world. And the interesting thick about that is that fort Erwin doesn't need 500 megawatts. It only needs 27. So a private company has come in to build that on the ground inside their gates, guns, and guards, and will sell 400 plus into the Southern California grid

CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. I know that Camp Pendleton has the largest solar array right now in San Diego County. Is that the -- is it sort of a public/private partnership that the military is making with some private contractors to come in and establish these green energy projects and then some of that energy is going to be used in the civilian world?

NOLAN: That's exactly how it's being done. What the department is encouraging is third party financiers to come in and finance these projects that will be owned by private companies but on land that's leased from the government. So there's some payback into the government, and a portion of the energy produced at those will be, if you will, reserved for the base so they have energy security, and the rest is sold into the utilities in the grid. And it's a great way to bring that energy security at no additional cost to the government.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha. Now, how did you get involved in this greening of the military? Were you involved in energy use in the military when you were on active duty?

NOLAN: No, I was the not. I was an operational guy, I was an artilleryman, and I never even thought about energy. After a retired I was doing some strategic planning for a union called the army's rapid equipping force, and we received a very strange request from the anbar province of Iraq from a marine two star that was asking for hybrid electric power station. Will we'd seen requests for robots, and detection devices, but nothing like this. And that's what really led me down the road to understanding that it wasn't because that marine two star was environmentally conscious. It was because the most dangerous thing to do in the anbar province was drive five gallons of diesel out to a Syrian border site to power the electronics there. And across Iraq and Afghanistan, soldier, sailors, and marines were at risk. And energy was a way to reduce that risk. If we could figure out how to reduce the demand or bring in alternatives, we could save people's lives. And that's really become my mission.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone I'm speaking with retired U.S. Army colonel, Dan Nolan, and we are that you canning about the efforts of the U.S. military to use alternative forms of energy. And it's all tied into an event that's that happening tonight on the USS midway museum. So you look into the idea of maybe reducing energy use in a military battlefield operation. But you still have trucks that use gas, and you still have cars that use gas, and military equipment that use gas. So is there any effort to actually change the way these trucks and ships and military equipment operates?

NOLAN: Absolutely. The Navy and the air force are both looking at using biofuels to replace the petroleum they're using today. Of the Navy has are a goal to sail a great green fleet, that is the fleet powered by biodiesel. The air force is certifying all of its aircraft by the end of this year in flying with a 50-50 blend of synthetic fuels. The army has started a process to try to get it some of its 500 plus installations across the country to be net 0 for water waste and energy. And all of this is being done for energy security and for economic reason, and third because it's the environmentally start thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: Our audience is pretty savvy. We have had an awful lot of programs about alternative energy. When you say biodiesel, biofuels, what exactly are you talking about? Not ethanol, right? Yes?

NOLAN: Not ethanol. What we're talking about is the Department of Defense is looking for drop-in replacement fuels. That is, fuels that have the same energy density as diesel, and the same characters so that we do nothing to change our infrastructure or engine types. They're simply able to use these fuels. And there's a lot of work being done by the DARPA, taking on some of these projects. They have been working on biofuels as well as some very interesting solar concentrator work over the last few years

CAVANAUGH: We have a lot of work here in San Diego on algae. Is that also being considered as a biofuel?

NOLAN: As a matter of fact, the Navy just announced they're purchasing about a half million gallons of fuel, and one of the companies that's providing it is an algae fuel company right here in California.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds as if -- I was going to ask you which branches of the military are at the forefront of this effort? But it sounds as if all of the military is embracing this as as I goal.

NOLAN: Absolutely right. The army is making a big push in the installations because those are like small stays out there. They can have a direct impact. The Navy with bunker fuels or ship required fuels, the air force is working very closely with the civilian air fleet to certify the engines to run on these things. And of course, the Marine, when the commandant of the Marine Corps says we're going to get better about energy, they get better about energy.

CAVANAUGH: If the military goes green, does it bring the civilian world along do you think?

NOLAN: I harp back to the 50s when president Truman integrated the military, and there was a huge healing cry, and it turned out to be fine. And when they came back to their home towns, they helped change a little bit. The same soldiers sailors and marines who are becoming energy aware are coming back to their home town and asking, why can't we do that here?

CAVANAUGH: Interesting question. Doesn't the military have an unfair advantage in the amount of federal funding they have to divert and to focus on alternative energy production and switch over to alternative energy sources?

NOLAN: I'm not sure what an unfair advantage would be. We're not taking them at gun point

CAVANAUGH: No, no. I mean over a civilian company or a municipality is what I mean.

NOLAN: Absolutely. And it's the buying power of the military. But if you think about the computer chips in the '60s, a chip that probably nobody remembers cost about $165 a copy until the military decided to use it for communications and drove those costs down. The department has said it will not pay premiums for production levels of these biofuels or any renewable energy generator. So the civilian world is going to have to figure out how to do that. That's something the civilian world is pretty good about making business cases am

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now, the Navy wants to reduce its nonrenewable energy use by 50% by 2020. Is that is a very ambitious goal. Is it likely that they will be able to do that?

NOLAN: Gosh, you're asking me to make business prediction, which, by the way is what I do for a living


NOLAN: What they've said is there is a market. If you can produce at this quantity, at this quality, and at this price, we will buy. The air force has said the same thing. The air force's goal is about 1.25 billion gallons out in the 2020 era. So if you were a venture capitalist right now and you're looking where to put money, take a look at biofuels. There is going to be a market. Jet A, which is the fuel we use in the jets is -- it's the same thick you use in a commercial airplane. But dumb it down a little bit, and it's diesel, and it runs in trucks. So with 20% of our energy in this country coming from the transportation and oil, I would prefer to be in a situation where we don't have to spend a billion dollars a day overseas to bring in a commodity we can produce here .

CAVANAUGH: As I said, you're going to have a presentation tonight on the USS midway museum. What are people who attend going to see there?

NOLAN: I think what they're going to hear is first what we're doing, what's being done by the Department of Defense in the operational end, what's being done at this in the 2.2 billion square feet of building space to reduce the energy there. But also understand, how does that translate to the civilian world? What is -- what are the opportunities for businesses, and what's going to help when those -- America's treasures, our sons and daughters come home and are back in your community with this knowledge? I think there's a tremendous opportunity there.

CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, and that is what are the barriers to moving faster into a sustainable energy world?

NOLAN: I think the barriers are in many cases education and perception. The idea that it costs more to build green, ludicrous. It costs the same, and in life cycle costs of buildings and equipment, it's much cheaper to build at energy efficiency. So I think the education process. We also have to over come some entrenched bureaucracies and business interests that would like to keep the advantages they have today and not turn it over to a new world. I'm sure the people that sold whale oil felt the same way at one time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you very much. I want to let everyone know that a presentation called the military goes green takes place tonight from 6:30 to 8:30 on the USS midway museum on north harbor drive.

Thank you so much.

NOLAN: My pleasure entirely. Thank you.