Efficiency and Conservation Not Enough to Achieve Energy Security

By David Kerner and Scott Thomas

The Defense Department currently deals with changing energy circumstances by reducing demand through efficiency and conservation, and by attempting to improve supplies.  

While this approach may optimize the use of those resources, it overlooks the many other energy-related challenges that the military must cope with and still accomplish the mission. The current strategy leaves the U.S. military highly vulnerable to supply challenges that are beyond its control.

The fault lies, perhaps, in the department’s definition of energy security: “Having assured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet operational needs.”  

For war fighting, the Defense Department pursues this through a small set of operational energy goals: Ensuring the availability of resources, pursuing efficiency measures and implementing conservation programs. But while these key elements provide the operational energy strategy with critical pillars, they are insufficient, simply because the government cannot always guarantee access to reliable supplies of energy.

The current goals neglect to address how the mission still gets accomplished without enough energy resources. And the same concern applies to defense installations.

To ensure mission sustainability, the military must understand the full range of potential vulnerabilities to energy shortages and disruptions and prepare to handle circumstances where supplies are not assured. So while the current energy security goals are important, true energy security must include understanding and addressing all vulnerabilities.

To ensure mission sustainability when supplies are not assured, the Defense Department should incorporate an additional pillar into its operational energy security strategy — that of energy resilience.

Resilience can be defined as being able to perform the intended mission despite energy supply perturbations. This definition refocuses policy from assuring supply to assuring preparedness, thus setting the framework for planners and operators to improvise, adapt and overcome the effects of potential supply interruptions.

The U.S. military understands resilience. Small unit leaders regularly demonstrate extraordinary initiative and imaginative problem solving. The Defense Department generally excels at organizing around a problem and orienting the combined capabilities of military research, industry, national laboratories, academia and other organizations toward solving complex problems. It will need to capitalize on these strengths as it contends with challenges to energy security.

Engineers and business leaders think of resilience as the amount of disturbance a system can resist or the speed with which it returns to equilibrium. Natural resource managers observe that ecosystems adapt, survive, and thrive despite a wide range of stresses and disruptions. In this context, resilience is measured by the amount of disturbance a system can absorb without changing its structure, function and overall identity.  

This last definition comes closest to describing what is necessary for energy security. How much disturbance can the national security infrastructure and operating forces accommodate while still maintaining their basic structure, mission capabilities, and capacity to function? How far can they bend and adapt without breaking?  

Defense installations and operations are highly dependent upon reliable delivery of large quantities of specific, high-quality energy resources. This dependency creates significant vulnerability, because of a highly uncertain outlook for resource availability, finite oil supplies and increasing demand by the developing world.  

Operating forces are tethered to vulnerable supply lines, the defense of which skews the “tooth to tail” ratio and places additional service members in harm’s way.

Installations that rely on aging, maxed-out commercial electric infrastructure are fraught with many physical weak points.  

Continuing to assume that adequate energy supplies will be available, either through technological innovation or discovery of new sources, is unrealistic.

The military has optimized its mobility and weapons to rely on the most efficient mode of energy delivery currently available: oil. While this strategy may make sense at the enterprise scale, it does not at a larger scale, such as during extreme events like wars, insurrections, drought and famine, energy embargoes and shortages, financial collapse and technological transformations.

When low-frequency, high-consequence “Black Swans” occur, they can upset the carefully optimized system.

Global energy competition is rendering resources ever tighter, leaving defense missions increasingly vulnerable to even small supply perturbations. The Pentagon’s response to energy shortages and increasing costs has been to pursue a variety of sustainability initiatives, including efficiency and conservation measures and alternative resources.  

Efficiency and conservation measures help harvest the low-hanging fruit, but while they are necessary and build resilience, these measures are not enough. Efficiency myopia may drive performance, profit, or savings over the short term, but eventually the low-probability, high-consequence events — critical material shortages or attacks on the electric grid — will threaten stability. For example, continuing to rely upon the least costly energy sources without systematically exploring and preparing to use alternatives would leave a military installation with few choices when the supply gradually or suddenly runs out.  

The current efficiency and conservation-based strategy is a necessary and promising start, but the Defense Department needs to expand its tool kit. It needs a management approach that focuses on exploring and preserving options, seeking diversity in energy uses, types, and sources, and monitoring energy supply and demand parameters at multiple scales.  

Since resilience has not been a focus for energy security, it is not surprising that it is not directly addressed in the Operational Energy Strategy, which provides a roadmap for incorporating energy considerations into current programs, processes and institutions.

Critical to achieving energy resilience is the ability to quantify and control. Energy managers and planners have sought metrics for assessing energy security, and specifically, resilience.  

Defense energy resilience metrics include:
  • Single points of failure: Features of installations or operations that will not function without just the right types of energy inputs, controls, or conditions, causing the entire system to fail.
  • Response diversity: The variety of different energy sources, operational options, and system characteristics that support mission flexibility.
  • Critical dependencies: The reliance upon consumable materiel, manpower (with specific skill sets), simultaneous or sequential dependent functions and operations, communications, controls (centralized and dispersed), and all other aspects of the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, and facilities spectrum.
  • Redundancy: The ready availability of backup systems, components, and controls.
  • Substitutability: How readily different fuel types, power sources, or functional capabilities can be engaged to achieve the mission or task.
  • Modularity/standardization: How readily system components can be swapped out without modifications.
  • Interconnection options: The variety of ways capabilities or functions can be combined or linked to achieve the mission or task.
  • Dispersion: The degree to which energy supplies are geographically close to the systems and functions they support.
  • Simplicity: The degree to which energy use throughout a system is readily understood.
  • Stability: The degree to which an installation or operation can continue to function if energy inputs, controls, or conditions are disrupted.
  • Pathways for graceful, controlled reductions in function: Whether the capabilities of an installation or operation can be reduced gradually and controllably to avoid the overwhelming effects of an unconstrained failure.
  • False/skewing subsidies: Whether components of a system (inputs, outputs or features) receive incentives that are disproportionate or unrelated to their actual value.
  • Situational awareness: How well a system, including components and functional capabilities, is monitored.
  • Preparedness: The existence of plans and procedures for responding to energy perturbations.
  • Readiness: How quickly an installation or operation can respond to changing energy conditions without delays due to technical, administrative or command commitments.
  • Autonomy/control over destiny: The degree to which an organization (or operation or specific function) can self-select alternate actions, configurations, and components to achieve the specific mission or function.
This list is not exhaustive. The importance of the factors will vary according to each situation, and it is important to understand how changes that enhance resilience in some areas may reduce it in others. Tradeoffs will likely be necessary.

Installation commanders may focus on building energy resilience by increasing redundant sources of energy for mission critical applications and exercising how to deal energy interruptions within their emergency response plan.

Unit commanders may focus efforts to build resilience by conducting drills to test for single points of failure and critical dependences, and assess the ability to substitute power types in key systems, by testing regular and extended use of multiple fuels. Program managers may assess energy policies with an eye toward realigning or eliminating incentives that provide funding support but work against resilience goals.  

One of the objectives in the Defense Department’s Operational Energy Strategy is building energy security into the future force. It calls for incorporating energy security into requirements and analysis, and for the development of an energy performance metric that can be inserted into analytical tools.

Energy resilience metrics should be part of the overall performance metric, as well as considered in requirements development and acquisition processes. This shift in emphasis from assuring supplies to assuring mission preparedness will complement and reinforce the mandate that mission performance take priority over energy consumption. It will also ensure future planning addresses not just energy supplies, but actual mission performance for the widest range of circumstances.

The strategy also recommends adapting policy, doctrine, professional military education and combatant command activities to meet energy strategy goals.  Resilience concepts and strategies also should be included.

Presidential Executive Order 13514 requires installations to develop installation sustainability performance plans for improving energy efficiency. The energy resilience metrics provide a useful tool for evaluating vulnerabilities, analyzing alternatives and developing balanced solutions.

The Defense Department has a choice: Continue to exclusively chase efficiency and conservation, or direct resources toward building resilience. Considering the current intense focus on efficiency and conservation — and the progress that is being made — a prudent course of action might be to do both.

To get from here to there, the department must be able to measure, monitor and manage the transformation.

It is perhaps ironic that the Defense Department’s capacity for optimizing power projection to fit select energy resources may now work against it, rendering the military vulnerable in the face of an unpredictable, complex and insecure energy outlook.  

Now the department must transition to an energy strategy that incorporates resilience and adaptability to evolving conditions. In light of planned budget constraints, shifting mission priorities, defense requirements for flexibility and a changing global energy scenario, resiliency measures offer a sound basis for building mission sustainability. By not pursuing resilience, the Pentagon risks backing itself further into an efficiency corner.                                                 

David Kerner is science, technology and energy policy advisor, and senior Engineer at The Tauri Group, Alexandria, Va. Scott Thomas is a senior scientist with Stetson Engineers in San Rafael, Calif., and an assistant research professor with the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Climate Change, Energy Security, Power Sources

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