Defense Energy: Small, Incremental Steps Do Better Than Sweeping Reforms

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Air Force saved $700 million in its five-year fuel budget just by redirecting flights through shorter routes and choreographing more efficient itineraries for cargo deliveries.

Army and Marine Corps troops collectively have shed hundreds of pounds of batteries from their rucksacks and are using solar chargers to power their computers and radios.

At Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, an electricity microgrid was used to replace 22 generators with just four.

Earlier this year, a Marine Corps commander in Afghanistan bought 55 gallons of cotton seed oil from a local farmer and troops used it to power generators on base.

These are all ways in which the military is becoming greener, by necessity rather than by choice. Reducing the demand for both fuel and batteries means there will be fewer supply trucks on the road that enemies will target with bombs and landmines. Three-fourths of the Pentagon’s fuel supplies are used by deployed forces.

These initiatives, however, amount to just drops in the Pentagon’s gigantic fuel bucket. In 2010, U.S. forces consumed more than 5 billion gallons of fuel in military operations.

Despite grand pronouncements and clarion calls by senior defense leaders on the need for sweeping reform, the U.S. military’s dependence on fuel is not likely to decrease, and may in fact grow in the future. During World War II, troops on average needed a gallon of fuel per day. The current demand is between 15 to 22 gallons a day per soldier.

“Combat is inherently inefficient,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, former commander of U.S. European Command and currently a consultant at Deloitte LLP.

“You can’t tell soldiers to shut off their tank and truck engines. Soldiers have to fight and survive, and that requires a lot of fuel,” Wald said in an interview.

Military weapon systems, by design, are fuel hogs. “If you have a technology that doesn’t use fuel, let me know,” Wald said. “The only way to get high performance out of a jet engine is to pump a lot of fuel,” he added. “There isn’t some magic formula out there that is going to change that” in the foreseeable future.

Before invading Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon spent tens of millions of dollars building a pipeline to ensure supplies for U.S. forces once they entered the country. Securing access to fuel remains a key component of military training.

“We are still training on how to build pipelines,” said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, deputy commander of U.S. Army Forces Command. “We have to have that capability,” he told a military energy conference. No matter where the military goes, he said, “We know we have to bring fuel from offshore.”

In most parts of the world, Bromberg said, “You see rail cars sitting all over the place” that the U.S. military uses to store fuel.

Since 2003, the Pentagon has launched a number of energy saving efforts, created new offices to tackle the issue and most recently unveiled an “operational energy” strategy that focuses on cutting fuel use in the field.

But experts are skeptical. Initiatives to promote a culture of fuel efficiency make for feel-good rhetoric, but tend to gloss over huge obstacles that stand in the way, such as the economics and politics of energy.

The military’s aircraft, ships, tanks and electricity generators always will need huge supplies of diesel and jet fuel. The question is whether that fuel will forever be petroleum, or whether it could be replaced by liquid substitutes made from renewable sources that could be produced locally and therefore lighten the military’s logistics burden.

So-called “drop in” biofuels — which can be mixed with military JP-8 jet fuel and perform the same as petroleum — are being produced in small quantities, and are being tested with successful results across the military fleet.

The solution to the military’s problem would appear to be simple: Ramp up the production of biofuels.

Unfortunately for the Pentagon, the cost of replacing fossil fuels with renewables would be prohibitive. Biofuels cost several hundred, if not thousands, of dollars per gallon, depending on the feedstock and quantities made. Defense officials have called for the private sector to pump up production and lower prices, but manufacturers and financiers are reluctant to invest in a multibillion-dollar biofuel infrastructure unless there is some guaranteed long-term demand that will make it worth the risk.

Wald, a biofuels advocate, has been discussing with Pentagon officials and industry executives the possibility of asking Congress for approval to allow the Defense Department to sign a 15-year purchase agreement with biofuel makers. If the Pentagon’s orders were combined with those from domestic airlines and global shipping companies, Wald said, it would create the demand signal that would spur mass production and lower prices.

Biofuels would be made from non-food sources such as the camelina plant or algae, said Wald. But any long-term agreement would be “feedstock agnostic.”

This is not a technology or a money problem, he said. Private equity is ready to invest, he said. The problem is a “lack of imagination” on the part of policy makers.

There is no indication yet that Congress is on board with this idea. Green energy, even if a strong case could be made that it contributes to national security, can be a tough sell in today’s polarized Washington.

The military’s energy goals are unlikely to be met until the United States adopts policies that recognize energy as a “national strategic need,” said retired Navy Adm. John Nathman, former vice chief of naval operations. “We need policy and legislation,” he said. The military services “have a lot of smart people working this problem,” but their efforts would be more wisely used if they were supporting a larger American goal to become less dependent on oil.

Private sector leaders also are cautiously pessimistic. “Industry is waiting to figure out whether this [alternative fuels] is a hobby or a reality for the DoD. … Only time will tell on that,” said David Morrison, a former senior House staff member and currently vice president for government operations at The Boeing Co. “We have to see if there is institutional and resource commitments,” he said.

Congress today has no appetite for big-energy policies, and despite widespread support for most military programs, legislators don’t put energy efficiency at the top of their list, said Morrison. “Congressional committees look at the DoD strategy and say, ‘Huh?’” Morrison said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum.

On Capitol Hill, defense officials face an audience that only has a “superficial understanding of the issues,” Morrison said.

Members of Congress typically will support alternative fuels, however, if their constituents have a stake, Morrison said. His former boss, the late congressman from Pennsylvania, John Murtha, worked with the Air Force for years on alternative fuels because the project — coal-to-liquids — would have been an economic boost for his district. That program later was phased out because coal was deemed too dirty a fuel source.

Sarah O. Ladislaw, a senior fellow at CSIS who works on energy issues, said that without policies and laws that provide incentives for every industry to invest in green industry, the Pentagon is left in this “never-never land, having to be upfront defending something that folks on the Hill recognize as a waiting priority.”

Joseph Westphal, undersecretary of the Army, makes no bones about the enormous hurdles the Pentagon faces as it tries to convert energy reform bumper stickers into action.

The federal government cannot even agree on how to fix really big problems such as the nation’s debt, let alone energy, Westphal said at an Army-Air Force energy conference.

Energy has become too politicized, he said. Whether it is climate change, global warming, or subsidies to energy companies, the polarization of the debate is slowing down change.

Even within the Defense Department, where current leaders have been vocal about the need to increase use of renewable energy and emphasize fuel conservation, there is no guarantee that today’s efforts will have any long-term continuity into the next administration, said Westphal.

Energy reform in the Army has been “really difficult,” he said. With up to 120,000 troops deployed in two major wars, and fiscal pressures from all sides, energy efforts easily can slide down the totem pole.

Westphal said Congress generally supports what the Army is doing in trying to become less energy dependent, as long as it is described in terms of “mission critical” goals, as opposed to discussing energy in a philosophical or ideological way, he said. “That is when people start taking sides.”

Kevin Geiss, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, laid some blame for the slow pace of energy reform on the Pentagon’s budgeting culture. Energy investments take years to pay off, he told reporters. Budget officials at the Defense Department typically are not willing to spend today’s dollars on something that would produce savings beyond the five-year spending blueprint known as “future years defense plan,” or FYDP.  “There’s that struggle that the payback is not going to give you money to move around the FYDP,” Geiss said. “Those are very difficult discussions to have … but it is a discussion that we are having.”

The Air Force, like the other branches of the military, is a big proponent of alternative energy and has certified most of its aircraft to fly on a mix of JP-8 and biofuel or synthetic fuel. But Geiss acknowledged that the Defense Department is not going to have the money to pay premium prices for alternative fuels, so the military services are expecting the industry to bring costs down.

“There is no indication from Congress that there is going to be a special fund that they provide for us to pay extra for operational fuel,” he said. “The whole business model to make biofuels affordable is going to drive certain practices. Industry is going to have to sort that out.”                       

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Power Sources

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