June 07, 2012

The Operational and Strategic Rationale Behind the U.S. Military’s Energy Efforts

The recent debate over the role of the military in investing
in renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency and conservation programs
and alternative biofuels has included many voices that sometimes conflate the
linked but distinct efforts by defense officials to address energy concerns.
The rationale behind the military’s energy programs can be broken down into two

  1. Adapting to operational energy requirements and
    security challenges in Afghanistan and other combat theatres;
  2. Hedging against future uncertainty in the global
    petroleum market.

Adapting to
Operational Energy Challenges

Military leaders have become increasingly worried about
operational energy challenges in Afghanistan and other theatres where U.S.
soldiers, sailors and airmen are deployed and are working to reduce the demand
for energy that must be transported across volatile terrain.

To date, part of the military’s effort to reduce operational
energy requirements includes:

  • prioritizing energy efficiency in the
    acquisitions process for new combat platforms;
  • fielding micro-grid technology to more
    efficiently manage traditional power distribution systems that waste energy;
  • replacing — where possible — diesel-fuelled
    generators with solar panels and other renewable energy sources;
  • equipping soldiers with advanced batteries that
    stay charged longer to help keep them in the fight;
  • and increasing awareness among all U.S. military
    personnel about energy use to help promote conservation practices.

There are clear operational advantages to reducing the fuel
required by military personnel in theater. In particular, reducing fuel
consumption also curbs the demand for petroleum that has to be trucked across
dangerous territory where the fuel and the soldiers and contractors
transporting it are vulnerable to insurgent attack.

According to a 2009 Army Environmental Policy Institute
study, for
every 24 fuel convoys deployed in Afghanistan, one U.S soldier is wounded or
. Those casualty counts are even more striking in the aggregate: the
most recent estimates from the Department of Defense found that between 2003 and
2007, more than 3,000 Army personnel and private contractors were wounded or
killed by insurgents attacking fuel and water convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan

And besides the need to reduce unnecessary causalities,
curbing the amount of fuel that has to be transported into a combat zone can
act as a force multiplier, enabling soldiers that would otherwise be guarding
convoys to reenter the fight.

There are also financial advantages to reducing operational
energy requirements that are becoming increasingly relevant in a fiscally
constrained budget environment. In general, reducing total energy consumption
can help insulate the Department of Defense from dramatic energy price spikes.
The Department of Defense estimates that every $1 increase in a barrel of oil
adds approximately $130 million to the military’s energy bill.

Moreover, fuel consumed in combat zones is by its nature
more expensive due to the fully burdened cost of fuel — that is, the total cost
from acquiring the fuel from a supplier to delivering it to troops at the
tactical edge in countries like Afghanistan. The personnel and transportation
costs of delivering fuel by jet, truck or helicopter add to the initial $2 a
gallon cost of fuel. Although the fully burdened cost of fuel has been
suggested by some to top $400 a gallon, the Marine Energy Assessment Team, or
MEAT, offers
a more conservative assessment
. According to the findings from a 2009 visit
to Afghanistan, DOD’s Defense Energy Support Center paid $2.19 per gallon for
fuel. When the fuel was delivered to the operational level — a forward
operating base — in Afghanistan, the price increased to $6.39 a gallon. The
MEAT then estimated that it cost $11.70 per gallon at the tactical edge — for
those military units deployed outside the wire, presumably at remote outposts.

The uniqueness of each war often makes it difficult for
defense planners to develop lessons learned from one conflict and apply them
directly to the next one — except when it comes to operational energy. The
experiences of fueling the force during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have
revealed a critical choke point that the U.S. military can address: the
delivery of fuel to troops in combat. The Department of Defense is leading
efforts today to reduce fuel requirements and — where possible — plug in
renewable energy technologies in lieu of diesel generators and other systems
requiring loads of fuel, enabling the U.S. military to be more effective war
fighters by managing the risks of delivering fuel in conflict. At the end of
the day it is about reducing the amount of petroleum needed to fuel the force.

Hedging Against
Strategic Uncertainty in the Global Energy Market

On the other side of the military energy coin are the
efforts underway at the Department of Defense to research, develop and test
alternative fuels, such as algae-based biofuel, and by the Navy to cooperate
with the Departments of Agriculture and Energy in public-private sector
ventures to develop refineries and scale up commercially available biofuel.
Although these efforts are related to the work being done by DOD officials to
assuage operational energy concerns, the military’s broad investments in
biofuels have a different goal in mind: preparing to fuel the force using
non-petroleum fuels.

Critics charge military leaders and administration officials
with promoting a green agenda — using war fighters to combat climate change
instead of violent extremists. But that is not it at all. Although being
environmentally sustainable and promoting security are not mutually exclusive,
the investments in alternative energy are first and foremost about ensuring
that U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen have access to the fuel they need to
conduct their operations and protect U.S. interests decades from now.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the future petroleum market
that is stirring anxieties about assured access to energy. Although
technological breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), ultradeep
water offshore oil drilling and other techniques are unlocking
new petroleum reserves in the western hemisphere to augment Middle East
, demand for energy could still outpace supply by mid-century,
largely as a result of demand from major developing economies like China,
Brazil, India and Turkey. As a result, petroleum supplies could become
increasingly tight.

The Department of Defense increasingly faces concerns about
assured access to energy resources necessary to power the military. Major
supply disruptions stemming from conflict in the Persian Gulf that could close
(even if only temporarily) the Strait of Hormuz, or a natural disaster that
takes U.S. domestic petroleum refineries offline pose major challenges for the
U.S. military and its dependence on petroleum. And even though legislation
gives the Department of Defense priority access to U.S. domestic petroleum
reserves, some policymakers share concerns that a long-term disruption could
exhaust those supplies and put at risk the U.S. military’s ability to conduct
its missions.

U.S. military investments in alternative biofuels are driven
largely by this uncertainty in the global petroleum market and the need to
reduce reliance on petroleum, which provides nearly 80 percent of all DOD
energy. Diversification is the aim of the game. While energy conservation and
efficiency programs and electrification of non-combat vehicles help hedge
against this uncertainty by reducing the overall demand for energy, liquid
fuels remain the real albatross for the military. Purchasing, producing and
testing advanced biofuels that can serve as a drop-inreplacement to
conventional gasoline decades from now help diversify the liquid fuel sources
and reduce the vulnerability of being tethered to only one source of fuel. The
emphasis on drop-in replacement fuels is important: DOD is procuring aircraft,
ships and vehicles today that will be in service for many decades and, as such,
new liquid fuels must be chemically equivalent to work in engines being
designed today.

Although current biofuels are not cost competitive with
petroleum, the Department of Defense cannot wait for a petroleum supply
disruption before it tests and evaluates new fuels in its combat equipment.
Making investments in advanced biofuels today will drive the development so
that these fuels (if and when they are needed) are standardized for military
use. This will help the U.S. military hedge against a future where petroleum
resources may be scarcer, requiring the military to rely on drop-in
replacements. While critics will argue against this plausible but seemingly
remote future, the military must be prepared for a range of contingencies,
especially high-threat but low-probability ones.

Finally, DOD’s motivation to invest in clean biofuels
such as hydro-treated algae fuel versus dirty alternative fuels
derived from coal-to-liquid technologies is in part a response to the changing
regulatory environment in the United States and abroad that is demanding the
use of less-carbon intensive energy sources. President Barack Obama issued an
Executive Order in October 2009 that charged federal agencies to measure and
reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, providing military leaders with guidance
on renewable energy investments. Additionally, many U.S. states like California
have instituted renewable energy regulations that compel compliance by the U.S.
military active in those states. Moreover, foreign countries in Europe and
elsewhere have increased their environmental standards, including regulations
on greenhouse gas emissions from fuels. The Department of Defense must be
prepared to adapt to these emerging environmental regulations in order to
guarantee the U.S. military’s freedom of access to foreign ports and


Defense officials and military leaders overseeing DOD energy
programs are promoting two linked but distinct efforts to address energy

The operational energy challenges that the United States
faces today in Afghanistan and other countries threatens both blood and
treasure. Military investments in energy efficiency and conservation programs,
including renewable technologies that can displace the demand for petroleum,
will help logisticians adapt to the challenges of fueling the force in a combat
zone by reducing the total energy requirement and managing more efficiently the
energy the military does consume.

Finally, given the strategic uncertainty of the global
petroleum market, defense officials are helping lead the effort to research,
develop, test and evaluate advanced biofuels that can serve as a drop-in
replacement to conventional fuels. Continuing these efforts will help the
Department of Defense ensure it its prepared to adapt to a future where
petroleum resources are increasingly scarce (even if that scenario seems
remote), and, more importantly, ensure that its platforms will operate just as
well on drop-in fuels.