Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has given the green light to an ambitious plan to reduce fuel consumption across all branches of the military and to promote energy efficiency as a standard way of doing business.
The newly released “Operational Energy Strategy: Implementation Plan” sets seven specific targets for “transforming the way U.S. armed forces consume energy in military operations,” says the document.
Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, said the broad theme of the strategy is “energy security for the war fighter, to ensure that U.S. forces have a reliable supply of energy.”
The seven objectives are:
• Improve the way energy consumption is measured: Every organization within the Defense Department will produce data on actual energy use in military operations from 2011 to 2017.
• Boost energy efficiency in combat operations and training. The Defense Operational Energy Board will set “performance metrics” to promote the energy efficiency of military operations by the end of fiscal year 2012.
• Promote innovation. The Pentagon will identify “investment gaps” in science and technology efforts to reduce demand, improve efficiency and expand supply alternatives. Recommendations are due by the end of fiscal year 2012.
• Improve energy efficiency at military installations.
• Stimulate the development of alternative fuels via funds that would be requested under the Defense Production Act. The law allows the Pentagon to boost production of equipment and supplies that are considered essential to national security.
• Include energy-security considerations into weapon-system acquisitions. This rule requires the military services to factor the so-called “fully burdened cost of energy” in the design of a new weapon system. FBCE is the actual cost of fuel plus other expenses that are driven by the use of fuel, such as transportation and protection of supply lines.
• Adapt military policy, doctrine and education so that energy efficiency becomes part of the culture of Defense Department activities.
The new Defense Department rulebook for energy use arrives as the military continues to struggle to protect fuel supply lines into Afghanistan. Although U.S. forces are expected to begin withdrawing next year, there are still more than 400 U.S. forward-operating bases in Afghanistan that consume from 250 to 7,500 gallons of fuel per day depending on their size, according to Army data. Large bases go through up to 50,000 gallons of fuel per day. Overall, the U.S. military consumes 50 million of gallons per month in Afghanistan.
The operational energy strategy is the product of a congressionally mandated effort that began in 2009 as an attempt to avert casualties in war zones, where thousands of troops and contractors have been killed and wounded moving and guarding fuel supplies.
The troop drawdown should not be a reason to slow down fuel-saving efforts, Burke said. She does not foresee the Pentagon returning to “business as usual” when it comes to energy, even after the current conflicts end. “If we do that, we’ll have the same revelation [that we had when the current wars started] next time we have to fight a war,” she said. “Yes, sometimes we forget when we come home. … But we’ll pay a price” if energy priorities are not addressed during peacetime, before the next conflict erupts, she said in an October interview. “If we are going to be a global force, it’s going to take a lot of energy to sustain a global force,” Burke said. “We should not wait until the problem is manifested.”
The most challenging piece of the Pentagon’s energy strategy might be securing congressional support for hundreds of millions of dollars in future investments in alternative fuels. Republicans in Congress have called for more domestic oil drilling as a means to lower fuel prices and reduce dependence on imports.
The Navy and Air Force have spent considerable funds so far procuring biofuels for tests and modifying aircraft so they can fly on a mix of alternative and conventional fuel. The Defense Logistics Agency has purchased 450,000 gallons of biofuels for future trials. It was billed as the largest ever U.S. government biofuel buy.
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, a supporter of biofuels, said it would be shortsighted to think that the nation’s energy problems can be resolved by relatively small increases in domestic oil production. The United States remains highly dependent on foreign oil that has to be transported through volatile areas, he said. “If the Straits of Hormuz is shut down, that is one-fifth of the world’s oil,” he said. “The global economy would go into a tailspin.”
One sector of the military’s green-energy business that is expected to see rampant growth is upgrades to Army bases. Army Secretary John McHugh formed an “Energy Initiatives Task Force as a one-stop shop for the development of cost-effective large-scale renewable energy projects. Army officials are betting that the private sector will jump at the opportunity to spend billions of dollars to build utility-scale solar plants and wind turbines, or produce geothermal energy on federal lands. The large upfront investment would be offset by future government contracts to supply electricity to military bases and surrounding communities.
Panetta’s endorsement of “operational energy” as a guiding principle in planning wars and building weapon systems has been welcome by supporters of renewables and by energy-security hawks who worry that the United States is far too vulnerable to oil supply shocks.
Some experts have cautioned that the Pentagon’s strategy is laudable but not likely to result in any significant reductions in oil imports as the military consumes less than 2 percent of the nation’s supply. Sarah O. Ladislaw, a senior fellow at CSIS who works on energy issues, said the Pentagon finds itself in a “never-never land” on this issue, having to defend renewable energy against a backlash from Capitol Hill.
Kevin Geiss, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, has warned that green efforts require patience as investments can take years to pay off. Pentagon program managers typically resist committing today’s dollars to something that would produce savings beyond the current five-year spending plan.