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VLASIC & ATLEE: Power, not prisoners, is Gitmo legacy

Defense takes point on the path to fuel freedom

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The Obama administration's decision last week to prosecute Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has re-established Gitmo's role in the "war on terrorism." But as one looks toward the future, might Gitmo be remembered not for its role detaining and prosecuting prisoners, but for it role in "greening" the Navy and the Department of Defense (DoD), and thus serving as a role model for the future of America's energy-security needs? Time will tell, but the Department of Defense is possibly already forging a new legacy.

Established in 1898, Gitmo is America's oldest overseas installation. Rarely associated with the front lines of sustainable energy, its detention facility has plagued both Republican and Democratic administrations, offering few "good news" stories and plenty of ammunition for international criticism. But in 2005, while no one was really paying attention, the Navy, in partnership with the Department of Energy and a Massachusetts-based energy company, made an investment in Gitmo's future. It installed four wind turbines and two high-efficiency diesel generators on the American side of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

The windmills provide 3,800 kilowatts of energy to the camp and have saved U.S. taxpayers $1.2 million in fuel costs annually. Prior to their installation, Gitmo was spending $24 per minute, $31,000 per day on diesel fuel. The wind turbines have also reduced pollution by cutting 650,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 26 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 15 tons of nitrogen oxide annually. The windmills were built to withstand both the winds of a Category 4 hurricane and the whims of Castro's anti-American behavior.

That's because in 1964, the Cuban government cut off water and power supplies to the base, forcing Gitmo to be self-sufficient in the ensuing decades. Thus, the decision to turn Gitmo "green" by installing highly efficient renewable-energy sources has been a priority not for public relations or environmental reasons, but for national security reasons. And as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

According to Rear Adm. Philip H. Cullom, the Navy's director of energy and environmental readiness, "[The] Navy's goal is to enhance national security by reducing war-fighter dependence on vulnerable fuel supplies while simultaneously ensuring we have available sustainable energy for the future." Adm. Cullom's statement goes to the heart of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's call to "outgreen al Qaeda."

In an interview with CNN, Mr. Friedman told the story of an American general on the Iraqi-Syrian border who was paying $20 a gallon for diesel to fuel his generators (if his trucks reached their destination in the first place); solar power would save money and lives. Mr. Friedman, accordingly, argued that "the ability to deploy, expand, innovate and grow renewable energy and clean power is going to become one of the most important ... sources of competitive advantage for a company, for a country, for a military."

According to the Pew Research Center, DoD spends an additional $1.3 billion over its initial annual energy budget of $20 billion for every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil. With unrest in the Middle East driving oil prices above $100 per barrel and budget cuts on the rise, the DoD's interest in cost-effective, renewable energy is a strategic priority.

Indeed, not one to miss a future trend, America's forward-thinking defense chief, Secretary Robert M. Gates, identified energy issues as one of the department's top transformational priorities. Following his lead, the U.S. military has undertaken numerous initiatives to develop clean energy, conserve energy, reduce energy costs and mitigate climate change. To be sure, DoD has also set a goal of producing or procuring 25 percent of its electric energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.

Mr. Gates' leadership, combined with the military's can-do attitude, has already produced some impressive results: On Earth Day 2010, for the first time ever, the Navy's premier fighter jet - an FA-18 E/F Super Hornet, dubbed the "Green Hornet" - flew faster than the speed of sound on a 50/50 biofuel blend of camelina-based and petroleum-based fuel. And in an effort to meet its goal of using 50 percent alternative fuels by 2020, the Navy successfully tested the Riverine Command Boat (RCB-X) on a 50/50 blend of algae biofuel and petroleum, achieving a top speed of 44.5 knots (about 52 miles per hour). Not to be outdone by the Navy, the Army is developing a 500-megawatt solar-power generation plant at Fort Irwin, Calif., and Army leadership is on track to remove the base from its reliance on the public grid over the next 10 years.

Gitmo is by no means the military's only renewable-energy success, but more than any other base, its history and location illustrate the need to free our armed forces from the strictures of nonrenewable energy. By serving as an example of DoD energy innovation, Gitmo demonstrates the pragmatic way by which the military - and the country - can diversify its portfolio of energy resources. As Winston Churchill said, "Safety and certainty in oil lie in variety and variety alone." Following Churchill's advice, if we are able to follow DoD's lead in achieving energy security from a variety of energy sources, Gitmo may very well establish a totally new legacy.

Mark V. Vlasic, a former White House Fellow to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security. Peter Atlee is a student at Georgetown Law Center.

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