A new study casts doubts on the Defense Department’s ability to shape the nation’s clean-energy future.
The Pentagon three years ago launched an ambitious campaign to replace fossil fuels with renewables, reduce overall consumption of petroleum products and convert aging facilities into carbon-neutral buildings. Defense officials have touted these efforts as key to easing dependence on foreign oil imports and to lessen battlefield casualties from enemy attacks on fuel supplies. Administration officials, lawmakers and think tanks have praised the Pentagon’s green-technology push as a potential catalyst for a larger national effort to become more energy independent.
But in a study released March 28, a group of researchers and policy analysts concludes that there are today “significant limitations upon the scope and scale of the Defense Department’s likely influence on technological advance that can contribute to the nation’s energy infrastructure as a whole.”
The report, titled, "Energy Innovation at the Department of Defense: Assessing the Opportunities," was produced by the Consortium of Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University and the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force. The Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center was the primary sponsor of the study.
"The Pentagon is unlikely to become an all-purpose hub for advancing clean-energy technologies, because its energy innovation activities will be sustainable only where they can support the nation’s defense capabilities," says the report. "Many technologies that are of great importance to improving the environment, such as carbon-free central station generation, may not easily fit with DoD’s mission."
The United States should capitalize on energy-related investments made by the Defense Department, the study says, but cautions that the biggest challenge for advocates of military-led energy innovation is to delineate a path forward for green projects that are linked to a national strategy of reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
A case in point is the Defense Department’s enthusiasm for biofuels. Both the Navy and the Air Force are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to test alternative fuel mixes in several types of ships and aircraft. But in the absence of a national plan to integrate biofuels into the civilian economy, the Pentagon finds itself as the proverbial tail trying to wag the dog. In recent months, Republican lawmakers have disparaged Defense Department biofuel programs as wasteful and disconnected from military needs.
The Pentagon’s contributions to energy innovation must reflect U.S. military mission needs, the study says. “Otherwise the incentives will be too weak.” The authors cite the example of the U.S. Air Force’s initial reluctance to embrace pilotless aircraft. “Yet the operational logic of unmanned aircraft has proven too strong to resist. … The lesson for energy-climate innovation is straightforward: mission- critical technologies will get commitment and support; others may not.”
There are reasons to question how much, or how easily, the Defense Department’s innovation capacity can or will be applied to the energy challenges that are most relevant to U.S. environmental goals, the study says. “DoD offers important institutional lessons, and models for innovation driven by the defense mission — but lessons and models that may not always translate easily to the energy context. … The department [which accounts for less than 2 percent of U.S. fuel consumption] is unlikely to become an all-purpose engine of energy innovation.”
The extent to which Pentagon-funded technologies have the potential to catalyze innovation relevant to large-scale reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions remains to be seen, the study says. “An important open question in this regard is the degree to which DoD will see zero carbon base load energy generation for its fixed installations as an area worthy of investments.”
The authors praise the Defense Department’s achievements in advancing energy innovation. These projects should continue, the study says, “but we must also be realistic in our expectations for the ultimate outcome of these efforts, unless greater attempts are made to consciously align DoD’s efforts with larger national goals and resources.”
CATF researchers express doubt that the Pentagon’s procurement bureaucracy and prime contractors are qualified or properly trained to incorporate energy efficiency into military systems.
“The demand for energy-efficient equipment to use in the field introduces new performance metrics into defense acquisition that are unfamiliar to the established defense industrial base, especially at the prime contractor level,” the study says.
Armored vehicles provide a telling illustration of the Pentagon’s energy dilemma. The Defense Department had to acquire heavy, fuel-hog vehicles to protect troops from the improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades that were responsible for so many casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. “No matter the rhetorical emphasis DoD may put on energy saving, future generations of ground vehicles will probably weigh more, and thus burn more fuel, than current models,” the study says. “The original Humvee, unarmored and never intended for combat, weighed about two and a half tons; add-on armor kits bring that to as much as four and a half tons.” A 10 percent rise in weight increases fuel consumption by about 7 percent. Military vehicles, with few exceptions, are too big and heavy to be candidates for battery-electric power, the report says.
In the 2009 Defense Authorization Act, Congress instructed the Pentagon to consider the fully burdened costs of energy in future acquisition decisions — or the life-cycle costs attributable to energy consumption. As yet, no information on fully burdened energy costs appears to be publicly available, the study says. Because acquisition programs take years to complete, and systems remain in service for decades, most of the Pentagon’s weapon systems already were designed without fuel efficiency in mind. The largest weapon procurement program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, began in the mid-1990s, when oil sold for around $20 per barrel. Incremental changes to the F-35’s engine, airframe, and flight controls will at best reduce fuel consumption a little, the study says.
“To cut energy consumption over the next two or three decades, the services have no real choice but to change their operating practices,” the report says. Many efforts in this area already are under way. Diesel generators networked via rudimentary smart grids reduce fuel consumption in the field, for instance. “Much more can be accomplished,” the study notes. “The private sector, motivated by profits, appears to save energy more consistently and aggressively.”
The Pentagon’s new office for Operational Energy Plans and Programs, established under the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act to oversee energy savings, has called on the services to formulate a “clear understanding of how energy is being consumed at the point of use” as a basis for “well informed resourcing decisions,” the study points out. “Important as it will be to gather accurate and comprehensive baseline planning information, it should be plain that there is no need to wait for better data.” The military should employ the available tools, the report says. “There is no better way for the U.S. military to save energy and set an example for the rest of government.”