June 15, 2011

When Saving Energy Could Save Lives

Military operations in landlocked Afghanistan are a painful reminder of how much the U.S. military relies on petroleum-based fuels for its tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft — even the generators that provide electricity at forward operating bases.

It’s a costly dependence, not just in terms of money but also in blood. About 3,000 U.S. troops and contractors have been killed or wounded protecting overland supply convoys from Taliban attacks. And nearly 80 percent of the convoys carry fuel.

The Pentagon this week unveiled its first plan to save money and protect the troops by changing the way forces on the battlefield use energy. The operational energy strategy focuses on operating more efficiently, minimizing dependence on petroleum by using alternate fuels and new technologies such as solar power and cutting the cost of energy consumption, both in dollars and lives. The approach builds on not just the Afghanistan experience but also on growing concerns about the security and availability of the world’s oil supply.

“The way we build energy into our operations is a core part of fighting and winning the nation’s wars,” Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said Tuesday in announcing the strategy.

Concerns about fuel supply lines are not new. The Navy’s ballistic missile submarines, for example, have been powered by nuclear energy for more than 50 years, so they can remain undetected beneath the ocean surface for longer periods of time without the need to refuel.

But the concerns have become more urgent in recent years because of a rapid increase in the need for petroleum-based fuels, combined with skyrocketing costs and supply disruptions by hostile governments or political instability. The combination of those factors has made energy consumption a strategic vulnerability for the United States.

“Our ability to sustain military operations is increasingly threatened,” Lynn said. “[The] DOD needs to address energy needs as a broad military challenge.”

The numbers are staggering. U.S. military operations consumed 5 billion gallons of fuel last year. Today’s Army consumes about 15 to 20 gallons of fuel per soldier per day, compared with about one gallon a day since World War II. Much of that is due to the increased use of computers and other electronic equipment on the battlefield.

One of the key elements of the strategy is to diversify the sources of electricity with alternatives such as solar power, which has already been tested by Marines under combat in Afghanistan, said Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs.

“For the long term, the department will take steps to promote the development of alternative fuels for our legacy fleets, and we will do more to protect against a disruption in our supplies, particularly of electricity at fixed installations,” she said.

A former vice president of the Center for a New American Security, Burke took office a year ago as the Pentagon’s first top energy official. The job was created by Congress in 2009 to address the challenges surrounding energy security.

The strategy developed by her office is designed to give all the military services common guidance for operational energy planning, although Pentagon officials haven’t yet set specific goals. 

But in a September report, the center recommended the military operate all of its systems on nonpetroleum fuels by 2040. While increased energy efficiency can produce short-term benefits without much investment upfront, the report said, it won’t be enough in the long run to provide sustainable energy security. 

“The Department of Defense must be prepared today to transition to a future without petroleum,” said Will Rogers, a research fellow at the center, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. “It’s not a small task.” 

One of the major challenges will be to find ways to replace petroleum-based fuels in existing systems with suitable alternatives. For instance, the center noted in its report that such alternatives need to be consistently available on a global scale, perform at least as well as petroleum and be affordable. 

The military is currently testing a variety of alternative fuel technologies, such as using oils from local crops in Afghanistan to power generators and waste-to-energy systems on Navy ships. And two defense contractors — BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman — are looking into using hybrid-electric drive technology on the Army’s new ground combat vehicle. 

If these and other efforts pay off, “America will have a military that is better able to respond to any challenge or any threat anywhere in the world,” Burke said.