What is taking so long?

Dotting the desert landscape of southern Afghanistan, there are 12 U.S. Marine Corps outposts. Two of them are fairly large Marine Corps bases, approximately 10 miles in diameter, and 2,000 to 3,000 Marines live and work there. They have cinderblock buildings, green circus-sized tents, and hundreds of little white rectangular trailers that serve as living quarters. The remaining outposts look more like temporary encampments, 5-10 circus tents with twenty or so large military trucks scattered among them. All 12 settlements have one thing in common. They all run on diesel-powered generators. It is, without a doubt, unsustainable.

Full-service cafeterias, laundry facilities, water heaters, medical clinics, air conditioners, heaters, thousands of computers, cell phone chargers, indoor and outdoor lighting, and radios for approximately 8,000 Marines are powered entirely by generators. The most recent estimates put the average daily fuel consumption at 8 gallons of fuel per Marine per day. In 2010, the average cost for fuel was $7.00 per gallon. That means the Department of Defense spends half a million dollars a day just to fuel Marine Corps operations in Afghanistan.  The commanding general of the Marine Corps wants to change all that. He wants the Marines on the leading edge of the battlefield to make the switch to solar power.

The Marine Corps’ fuel bill looks miniscule compared to the Army, by far the largest American presence in Afghanistan with twice as many troops stationed in the war zone. So, it isn’t as if the Department of Defense is pressuring the Marine Corps to trim its cost. The Corps’ leadership wants to curb its own hoggish consumption because it’s not in keeping with the Marine Corps’ role as a lightweight, “first to the fight,” expeditionary force. Marines cannot press as far into enemy territory as they once could because they cannot operate without a steady supply of fuel. And the long, tenuous supply lines that traveled by fuel trucks are easy targets for roadside bombs. It’s an unacceptable tactical vulnerability.

Burning truck in an Afghanistan fuel convoy

In 2009, the Marine Corps’ commanding general called an “Energy Summit” in Washington D.C. to start a conversation about alternative energy between leaders in the industry and leaders on the battlefield. Military officials from all four branches of service spoke throughout the day about their efforts to go green. The Air Force was increasing efficiency on domestic bases by improving insulation and upgrading appliances in office spaces and family housing. The Navy was investigating technology to save fuel on ships. The Marine Corps was tightening their belt by limiting official vehicle use here in the states. But, it wasn’t enough.

General Conway had just returned from the frontlines in Afghanistan. And having witnessed the carnage created by roadside bombs planted along fuel truck convoy routes, he wanted immediate solutions to stem the flow of fuel and blood. Within days of the summit’s conclusion, the General selected four of his officers to join up with four civilian scientist, specializing in alternative energy, and go to Afghanistan to devise a plan to get the Marines on the front lines off of generator power.

Standing under a desert sun that bakes Helmond Province 11/12ths of the year, the team hatched a plan to power the outposts with solar energy. The Marine officers returned to Washington D.C. and began combing the Internet for products that could be adapted for use in Afghanistan.

Over the course of a few months, the officers cobbled together a collection of solar panels, thermal tent liners, and LED lighting systems that Department of Defense engineers could adapt to work reliably in a dusty, desert environment. When the equipment was ready, they gave the gear to a Marine unit that was scheduled for deployment and trained them to use it. The unit, a company of about 200 Marines, deployed to Afghanistan with the engineers’ products and cut their fuel consumption by two-thirds of what they would have normally used. Having proved the concept, more units will deploy with solar power technology in the future.

The project, thus far, has been a success. And looking at photos of the guinea pig outpost draped in solar power absorbing blankets that gleam under a relentless Afghanistan sun; the long-awaited solution to the Marine Corps’ problem seems like a “no-brainer.” Marines have died for eight years hauling fuel to the frontlines of this war. You might be tempted to ask, “What took the Marine Corps so long?”

But we have been careening down a similarly unsustainable path in the United States for decades. The Department of Energy says that our nation consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day. That equates to roughly one quarter of what the entire world consumes. However, we produce less than 1% of what the world consumes. Using the most generous estimates of our offshore oil reserves, we could only produce 200,000 barrels a day if all drilling bans were lifted and rigs started producing oil tomorrow. Our plan for the future does not look any more sustainable than the Marine Corps’ plan for generator powered cities in the heart of Afghanistan’s Helmond Province.

The Marine Corps was finally spurred to action by a slow-onset realization about the true cost of fuel. Standing in the desert of Afghanistan looking into the charred wreckage of a crumpled fuel truck, the link between blood and oil is undeniable. Yet still, it took eight years of evidence to provoke action.

For forty years, the American people have seen our economy hover on the brink of disaster when fuel prices periodically surge. Our economy is held hostage by oil-producing nations that we do not trust. And our globe warms, turning ecologically more violent under a blanket of gasses emanating from our tail pipes and factories. Still, we guzzle fuel without restraint.

We argue about the details of our plight and procrastinate on difficult energy policy decisions because we have the luxury to do so. Our leaders give us permission to maintain the status quo by hiding the true cost of fuel. They coddle the energy companies with generous tax policies and shield the voting public from the horrors of war by maintaining a separate warrior class to handle the dirty work. All the while, we dabble around the edges of changing our energy policy.

We have no touchstone to focus our efforts. There are no charred fuel trucks on the American roadsides.

And that is what’s taking us so long.

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About Donna Hesterman

Mom, wife, Marine, science teacher, science writer.
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