US military warms to electric cars

Defense Department plans to buy 92,000 hybrid and electric vehicles over the next seven years to trim its fuel bill. They could be especially cost-effective in war zones.

Steve Marcus/Reuters/File
Col. Dave Belote (L), commander of Nellis Air Force Base, and Eric Vander Leest, a photovoltaic system technician for SunPower Corp., walk through an array of solar photovoltaic panels at the base in Las Vegas, Nev. The US Department of Defense is trying to trim its heavy reliance on fossil fuels with, among other things, hybrid and electric cars.

The nation's largest consumer of energy is trying to rid itself of that title. 

The US Department of Defense aims to trim the roughly $17 billion it spent on fuel in 2011 by, among other things, buying electric cars. To be specific, it plans on buying 92,000 hybrid and electric vehicles over the next seven years, according to a report released Thursday by Navigant Research, a Colorado-based consulting firm

That's a boost to the electrified transportation industry, and would represent on an annual basis nearly 3 percent of the hybrid and electric vehicles sold in the United States last year. It's also a huge savings for the military, because its costs of fuel can easily balloon.

“In remote theaters of operations, the cost of moving fuels to forward military locations can be a multiple of the cost of the fuel itself,” Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant. 

The cost isn't just in dollars, either. One in every 50 convoys suffered a fatality in Afghanistan in 2007, according to the Department of Defense's Operational Energy Plans and Programs. Fuel makes up about half of the material shipped in military convoys. 

“Why are soldiers still dying in fuel convoys when the military could significantly reduce its fuel at remote locations and at the same time save taxpayer dollars?” Daniel Rice told Bloomberg. Mr. Rice served in Iraq before co-founding SunDial, a company that sells renewable technology to the military.

Many of the military's alternative vehicles are used in its light-duty, nontactical fleet, but its foray into new fuels isn't limited to passenger vehicles. One focus moving forward, according to Navigant, is the use of "vehicle-to-grid" technology in both domestic operations and in theaters of war. The technology enables electric cars and trucks to draw on localized microgrids that frees soldiers from having to rely on fuel convoys or electricity in regions where supply is often unstable.

 The military plans to spend $20 million to test a fleet of 500 of these vehicles by the end of this year.

 The greening of military tactical operations goes beyond electric vehicles. The Navy has plans to develop a “Green Strike Group” of ships and aircraft powered by biofuels to be deployed overseas by 2016. It's developing hybrid electric engines for its fleet, which could save $250 million per ship, according to the Defense Department. 

These moves have support from its top post. During his January confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel emphasized a commitment to “operational effectiveness and efficiency – improving the energy performance of aircraft, ships, ground vehicles and military bases; reducing the vulnerability of our fuel supply lines; decreasing the load our expeditionary forces must carry; and diversifying the energy supplies we use.”

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