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The Army goes off the grid

Do you know about "net zero"? That's the wonky phrase attached to an elegant idea: converting communities to total renewable energy, complete recycling and a culture of conservation to bring humankind's carbon footprint into a sustainable balance with a healthy earth.

Now, imagine the last place you'd expect this ideal to take root -- and even flourish. How about an Army base? In Texas? Well, astonishingly enough, the Army is pioneering America's net-zero future. Fort Bliss, a sprawling military base accommodating 35,000 soldiers in El Paso, is one of our armed forces' leading hotbeds of energy conservation and creativity.

The post already has a 1.4-megawatt solar array and has placed rooftop solar panels on enough base housing to generate 13.4-megawatts of energy. It's partnering with El Paso Electric to add a 200-acre, 20-megawatt solar farm by 2015. The base's managers plan to convert its own waste into energy. Oh, and it's engaged in wind power, geothermal, and conservation projects while promoting energy-efficient vehicles and building bicycle lanes.

The Army! Who knew they cared?

At Fort Bliss, the rank and file, as well as the brass, are committed to achieving the goal of net zero by 2018. By that date, the base is supposed to generate all of the energy it uses -- solely relying on renewable alternatives. Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas, aims to get there by 2020.

The troops have earned their green stripes by planting nearly 15,000 trees and embracing recycling. To encourage the latter, base commander Gen. Dana Pittard has invested the revenue from recycling into skate parks, gyms, and other morale-boosting recreation projects.

"Everybody is getting involved," he says, noting that the effort is changing behavior and fostering a conservation culture, which he hopes "our soldiers will then take with them when they go on."

There's hope for the Earth when even the Army begins to care, take action, and change attitudes.

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer and public speaker.