Senate authorizers are turning a skeptical eye toward renewable energy projects that are funded in the Pentagon’s budget, said a senior congressional advisor.
As military budgets flatten or decline in the coming years, members of Congress will be dissecting funding requests more thoroughly, and renewable energy programs may become increasingly tougher to justify, said Lucian Niemeyer, an advisor to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Neimeyer, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, has been working on energy issues for three years, and has seen a shift in how lawmakers view the benefits of military investments in clean energy, he told a group of military officers last week at the Air Force Association’s annual convention.
“We understand that [the Defense Department’s] energy goals will require some investment, but we are also cognizant that in a time of declining budgets those investments need to be competed against other requirements for national security and for the Air Force,” he said.
Congress in general has been supportive of the Pentagon’s ambitious goals to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, but members are now more frequently questioning whether many defense energy projects are worth the cost, or even whether they actually contribute to “energy security,” Neimeyer said.
As ranking minority staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee’s readiness and management support subcommittee, Niemeyer oversees military readiness, defense budgets, basing, energy and installation programs.
Committee members have sought in recent years, in many cases unsuccessfully, to “codify and quantify” the military’s energy goals. It often is not clear how funding requests match specific goals, he said. “The concern that we have is that these goals [are set] out there for 10 to 15 years from now, but they’re not necessarily tied into plans that can be developed and defended at the resource level for each budget year.”
The Defense Department earlier this year unveiled a wide-ranging energy strategy that calls for reducing fuel use because of the risks associated with transporting liquid fuels to the battlefield, concerns about oil price volatility and having assured access to energy supplies.
Congress has backed many green-energy projects, which have brought billions of dollars to lawmakers' home states. Armed Services Committee members, however, are becoming more distrustful of claims that green-energy projects contribute to national security, Neimeyer said. There have been several instances when initiatives — including large-scale wind turbines and solar plants — have created obstacles for military activities, such as signals that interfered with the operation of military radar or other equipment. “Whatever energy goals we develop, whether it’s on the facility side or the operational side, [we want to make sure it] ties back into a national strategy and doesn’t affect readiness,” Neimeyer said.
Military training ranges in Utah and Nevada, particularly, have been affected by renewable energy projects and have drawn congressional attention, he said. “Our concern is that in the rush to do those [projects], it doesn’t have a negative impact on operations and readiness.”
A provision in last year’s defense authorization bill created a “clearinghouse” precisely to vet every project, said Neimeyer.
The Defense Department can expect even more scrutiny as the House of Representatives drafts new energy-related initiatives, he said.
On the Senate side, an ongoing debate is whether the Defense Department should be providing the seed funds for renewable energy technologies. “The question for us is always ‘what does renewable energy do in terms of national security?’” said Neimeyer. There is some skepticism about how supporting the renewable energy industry is directly tied to energy independence and energy security. “The jury is still out,” said Neimeyer. “There’ll be plenty of discussion in the future, particularly with declining budgets, on how much we want to continue to put DoD funds in these types of activities.”
One of the most polemical energy efforts are biofuels, and the military’s plans to invest possibly billions of dollars on petroleum alternatives.
Some lawmakers see biofuels as high-risk investments because they have “unintended consequences,” Neimeyer said. Production of ethanol, for example, has led to rising food costs and increased water demand in areas where water is scarce, according to studies. It also is not clear how much these clean fuels will end up costing, and whether they will be able to compete in price with fossil fuels.
“The discussion is to what extent we continue to use DoD funds to seed these types of industries when we don’t know what the ultimate consequences might be,” Neimeyer said. These questions come up every time the committee receives “another $20 million request for studying a particular fuel source,” he said.
Kevin T. Geiss, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, said the military is interested in biofuels, but is far from making a commitment to any particular fuel source. “We in the Air Force have not chosen any winners in the realm of biofuels,” Geiss said. “Our main purpose is to make sure that when that stuff shows up in the market, that we can put it into our planes."
Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, said future investments in biofuels will be based on whether they meet military needs. Under the 50-year old Defense Production Act — which was amended a couple of years ago to identify energy as a critical industry for defense — there are provisions for the Pentagon to invest in biofuel “if we need to, for our mission,” Pfannenstiel told reporters.
The Air Force’s goal is to use alternative aviation fuels for 50 percent of its domestic aviation needs by 2016. The Navy plans to deploy a “Great Green Fleet.” Both the Navy and Marine Corps seek to use alternative energy sources to meet 50 percent of its energy requirements in weapons platforms by 2020.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus this summer announced that, along with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, the Navy would invest up to $510 million to co-finance construction or retrofit plants and refineries capable of producing significant quantities of advanced biofuels over the next three years.
The three agencies jointly issued a “request for information” to industry seeking ideas for how to establish a commercially viable drop-in biofuels industry.
Greater congressional oversight of alternative energy programs comes at a time when the Pentagon is expected to dramatically increase spending in this area. Pentagon spending on energy security initiatives has risen from $400 million to $1.2 billion in the past four years, and market experts project funding will increase, according to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Pike Research estimates that Defense Department annual investments in advanced energy technologies will reach $3 billion by 2015 and $10 billion by 2030. Future programs will focus on efficient vehicles to reduce battlefield fuel demand, developing biofuels as an alternative to petroleum fuels and deploying renewable energy technologies at fixed and forward bases, said the Pew study, titled “From Barracks to the Battlefield.”
“As one of the largest energy consumers in the world, the Department of Defense has the ability to help shape America’s energy future,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew's Clean Energy Program.
The study estimated that the Defense Department has 450 ongoing renewable energy projects producing or procuring 9.6 percent of its energy from clean sources.
Pew’s optimistic forecast, however, may not have taken into account the political hurdles that defense green-energy programs will face in the near future.
Neimeyer said he expects that every investment that doesn’t have immediate payback will be questioned. “You’re going to see more of that,” he said. Fiscal year 2011 funding will not be affected but beginning in fiscal year 2012, everything will be on the table.