Defense puts green in its blueprints

Monday - 5/23/2011, 9:40am EDT

WFED's Jared Serbu

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By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

Beginning this year, any contractor who wants to bid on a Navy or Marine Corps construction project has to include at least an option package to build to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Gold standard.

And starting in FY 2013, LEED Gold will not be optional. Every new Navy Department building anywhere in the world will have to meet that bar, "and we're going to do it without spending any more money," announced Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. "LEED standards, if you write the contracts correctly, you can do for the same amount of money that we have budgeted for military construction."

Mabus spoke at the U.S. Green Building Council's Annual Government Summit. Afterwards, he told reporters that building an individual facility to LEED Gold generally doesn't involve much extra costs, as long as the contractor knows the expectations.

"Putting the RFPs out with the LEED Gold standards in them and knowing, and one of the things we're finding is that as we put these out, we are getting bids that, whether it's for straight construction or for LEED Silver, LEED Gold, we can do the LEED Gold and spend no more money than we were otherwise spending. If contractors know going in ... they are able to come in under the budget," explained Mabus.

LEED construction in government is not exactly new. The General Services Administration mandated that all its new buildings meet the LEED Gold standard in October of last year. And most new military construction that's happening under the current Base Realignment and Closure process is meeting at least LEED Silver. For example, the new outpatient and in-patient at the expanding Bethesda National Naval Medical Center were awarded LEED Gold status just this month.

But the Navy is the first part of DoD to mandate LEED Gold across the entire enterprise.

Mabus frequently speaks to audiences about saving energy and using alternative energy. He says there are compelling strategic and tactical reasons to try to transition away from fossil fuels. For example, he says, Navy ships are most vulnerable when they're in foreign ports refueling, as the USS Cole was when it was attacked in Yemen in October, 2000.

Mabus says the unpredictability of fossil fuel prices is also a problem. "We're paying in the last 18 months, more than a billion and a half dollars extra for fuel than we anticipated when the budget was done," said Mabus.

And importing fuel into places like Afghanistan and over-land fuel convoys are expensive too, he says, and not just in terms of dollars. He estimates that for every 50 convoys Marines have to guard, one Marine is killed or wounded in an attack on a convoy. "It's expensive in the fact that when Marines are guarding fuel convoys, they're not doing what they were sent there to do, which is to fight, to engage, to rebuild."

In Afghanistan though, the Marines are beginning to cut their reliance on the fuel they need to power generators at forward operating bases and small outposts. One group of Marines has been experimenting with harnessing the abundant solar energy in Afghanistan. Mabus says the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines now has two combat outposts that use zero net energy, and two more that have cut their energy use by 90 percent.

"One of the ways of doing that," said Mabus, "is they were given roll-up solar blankets to power small electronics. In the 90s, a marine company used nine radios. Today they carry 224 in that same company - radios, GPS, all sorts of different sort of electronics. By giving them those solar blankets and using that to power those small electronics, those marines save 700 pounds of batteries they didn't have to lug, and we didn't have to resupply them every two days with a convoy, and we didn't have to pay the $117,000 dollars that those batteries cost to go out every two days."

And, Mabus says, Marine Corps Commandant James Amos has now institutionalized some of the practices that unit's been developing. Every Marine who deploys to Afghanistan now receives training on deploying, using and fixing those solar units and other experimental energy technologies.

But when it comes to finding true, drop-in replacements for things like diesel and jet fuel, Mabus acknowledges the military faces the same challenge everyone else does in the alternative energy world: getting products that are cost competitive with fossil fuel and can scale up to serve an entire marketplace.