Sustainability Is a Critical Factor In the Nation’s Energy Equation

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.
When it comes to energy initiatives, the Defense Department has a lot of wheels in motion. It has set up a test bed where new power-saving technologies to conserve power are being put through the paces. It is tackling the problem of wind turbines that interfere with airborne radar.

And it is also working more closely with the Department of Energy after signing a memorandum of understanding with its counterparts there.

Dorothy Robyn, who oversees environmental and energy policy at the Defense Department, delivered this encouraging progress report at a recent energy symposium. But she acknowledged that there was still work to be done. For one, energy conservation programs within the department need to have better analyses that can show leadership what the return on investments are for “green” programs. Congress is now asking for the data that proves that these programs are worthwhile. Robyn said her office also needs to do a better job of making senior leaders aware of these initiatives and of the results of the analyses.

Also needed are incentives for the private sector. Today, for example, there is no way to share savings with architecture and engineering firms.  This may explain why there are so few of them that are truly expert at the design of energy efficient facilities.

Increasingly, there is emphasis on third-party financing and public-private partnerships. Projects such as the photovoltaic array at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., involve private investment and ownership, and a military user or purchaser of the energy output. Robyn pointed out the need for policies that lead clearly to effective new energy programs and good metrics to measure success.  

James Leatherwood, a NASA official, also made a pitch for “green engineering” development. He said that sustainability is the key driver to innovation. In this arena, the “Law of the Iroquois” is applicable. That law mandates that any decision consider the impact on the seventh successive generation.  

Kevin Geiss, deputy secretary of the Air Force for energy, said a key objective is assured access to reliable supplies of energy and delivery to operational areas. He noted that 84 percent of Air Force energy is liquid fuel for aviation. The Air Force approach is first to reduce demand through better planning and by changing Air Force culture. The service already has more than 99 percent of its fleet certified to operate with a 50-50 blend of synthetic and petroleum based fuels. He made the plea for suppliers to come forward with the fuel which the Air Force is prepared to buy and use.  

The Air Force would like to use long-term purchase agreements, but Geiss acknowledged the government’s scoring system prohibits obligating funds without specific budget authority. That means any long-term purchase agreement would have to have all funds obligated in one year, the year of the budget. Experts agree that this scoring methodology must change in order to secure private sector investments.

From a broader perspective, it is clear that the energy equation is greatly complicated by a range of factors not associated with energy development. And all of these factors have one thing in common: a sustainable solution that assesses impact as far into the future as possible. One factor is the environment. Effects on water and agriculture need to be factored in, understanding that the U.S. population in 2050 is likely to reach 500 million, a 65 percent increase from today. Another factor to be considered is the increasing world population, adding another 3 billion by the end of this century.  

Karen Harbert of the U.S. Chamber’s 21st Century Institute pointed out that world demand for energy will be up 49 percent by 2035 and electricity demand will climb 76 percent. Also, an additional 64 million barrels of oil per day will have to be discovered (the equivalent to six Saudi Arabias) to meet the demand. This will require $26 trillion of new investment. And she pointed out that the United States is not a particularly comfortable place for capital investments in energy programs right now. It is going to other places. Harbert showed a chart of all the energy development projects — coal-fired power plants, natural gas, geothermal, wind — that have recently been denied in the United States. It is a staggering number, but the most shocking piece is the denial of a large number of natural gas development projects, especially in the Northeast. Add to this the financial crisis, and the future looks a bit grim for the energy supplies that the United States and the world will need for the long run.

The good news is that the Defense Department is making progress, but there is much more to do. The question remains, will it be fast enough? And the bigger question is yet to be answered: Can we find a sustainable solution given the surrounding complexities of environment, permitting, policy and regulatory hurdles, financial wherewithal, and rapid demand growth?  Technology seems to offer acceptable solutions, but will and consensus are absent.

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Climate Change

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