Experts skeptical of military’s turn toward electric vehicles

Michael Bastasch | Contributor

The Department of Defense quietly announced in January that the next step in making the military more eco-friendly would entail spending $20 million to purchase electric vehicles to help offset power usage at Defense Department installations.

The Pentagon expects to lease up to 500 electric vehicles at six different installations later this year, with each vehicle costing between $30,000 to $100,000. When idle, these vehicles would deliver power back to a grid in order to help offset the military’s power usage.

Some projections show that revenue from power that is returned from the grid could completely offset the cost of the vehicles.

“It could mean we get the vehicles at no cost, which — if we are able to — would change the industry and would certainly help the American public,” said Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for installations.

However, some defense experts question the effectiveness of the use of electric vehicles to generate savings and bring in more revenue.

“I’m very skeptical as to how much energy this is really going to save,” William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I just don’t frankly see how this works out in terms of cost-benefit. Especially at a time when we’re cutting defense spending.”

“This notion that you can plug them back into the grid and they’ll return energy that you can use for other purposes is highly speculative at this point,” Jeff Kueter, president at the George C. Marshall Institute. “Theoretically it’s possible to do that, but it requires a whole lot of additional work that’s going to cut against whatever your energy returns are as well as your cost returns.”

“I’d say that those projections they are making are optimistic at best,” Kueter added.

The Air Force plans to roll out the project at Los Angeles Air Force Base and replace conventional vehicles from sedans to shuttle buses with electric versions. Idle, charged vehicles will be used to resupply the local power grid during peak hours of demand — providing stability to electrical grids and potentially generating revenues for the military, according to the Defense Department.

If the program is successful it could be expanded to include 30 bases across the U.S. and 1500 electrical vehicles.

“It’s not completely insane to do this,’ Kueter said. “DoD would be able to build that infrastructure, and because the fleet only revolves around that infrastructure … it will work efficiently. Much more so than the general application of that technology would.”

Martel added that there could be some economic benefits to auto producers if the cars are produced and purchased from U.S. automakers, but said her remains skeptical.

“I don’t get the strategic rationale,” Martel said. “I don’t quite see where we really gain from this, unless it’s a public push to extol the virtues of electric vehicles.”

The Defense Department is the world’s largest oil consumer and energy costs are a major concern for them, especially in tough budgetary times. The military has been looking for ways to lessen U.S. dependence on oil from volatile regions of the world. For example, the department came under fire last year for its “Great Green Fleet” which runs off of costly biofuels.

However, Kueter warned there are also political realities underlying the decision to use more renewable energy sources in the military.

“You’re seeing the Defense Department being used as a tool for industrial policy,” Kueter said. “The advocates for them are turning to the tried and true method which is to use the Defense Department and its budget to drive market demand.”

“We want to be mindful that there’s another game being played here,” he added.

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