Yesterday I participated in a bloggers roundtable held in conjunction with this year’s US Army/Air Force Energy Forum in Crystal City, VA. The two services made their Deputy Assistant Secretaries with responsibility for energy available for a Q&A on energy security and the military’s increased focus on energy efficiency and renewables. The session gave me the opportunity to raise one of the main concerns I’ve had about these initiatives, which must compete for funding with the services’ ongoing high operating and procurement costs. If the Department of Defense invests in solar power and renewable aviation fuels, to what extent does that come at the expense of troop deployment or vehicle and aircraft replacement, particularly with significant budget cuts in prospect?
I framed my question in terms of the relative priority placed on energy efforts, and I wasn’t surprised that the two officials’ answers reflected common themes without overlapping perfectly. Mr. Kidd of the Army indicated that the services’ priority on energy has been going up, not down, and is currently at the highest level, at least in the Army. He suggested this resulted from a change in the Army’s culture and how it values energy. He cited as evidence the presence of four 4-star and several 3-star generals at this week’s energy forum. He also pointed out that although most of the Army’s US facilities could purchase their utilities from outside suppliers as they always had, the price of those utilities has been rising, except in areas where power is generated mainly from natural gas. He saw these higher costs as helping to make the case for both efficiency and renewables.
Dr. Geiss’s response echoed that concern on behalf of the Air Force, though more in the context of the large uncertainties that energy has introduced in the budget planning process. For example, when the budget for the current fiscal year was set, it didn’t contemplate the 30% fuel price increase that the Defense Logistics Agencyapparently passed through last month. Such unexpected costs effectively compete with funding for the services’ core missions in much the same way that I was worried that investments in efficiency and renewables might, with the latter offering the benefit of future price stability. That trade-off reminded me of many situations I’ve faced as a strategic planner.
Dr. Geiss also expressed interest in energy solutions with what he called second- and third-order effects: solutions that don’t just substitute one fuel for another but that might also reduce maintenance needs or otherwise enhance effectiveness. Unfortunately time didn’t permit a follow-up on that point, because I would have been very interested to hear if the Air Force testing of renewable aviation fuels is showing benefits along those lines compared to fuels based on petroleum kerosene. However, in responding to my question Dr. Geiss placed the greater attention being paid to energy within the context of many other defense commitments that also have high priorities. (I wonder how he’d react to the old nostrum that when everything is a high priority, nothing is.)
Perhaps part of the answer to that conundrum was provided in responses to other bloggers’ questions about the high cost of alternative fuels and the relationship between military facilities and nearby communities. Mr. Kidd highlighted the need for military bases to partner with local communities on waste, water and energy, and not be isolated from them.
Meanwhile, Dr. Geiss made an important distinction between the Air Force trying out small quantities of new fuels that still cost much more than conventional kerosene-based products, and the much larger volumes that would have to be priced competitively to satisfy the service’s large fuel needs, which, as he pointed out, account for just 10% of jet fuel consumptionin the US. He cited mutual benefits in Air Force fuels testing and the broader commercial acceptance of aviation biofuels. Early efforts in testing synthetic jet fuel in aircraft such as the B-52 paved the way for last week’s first commercial flightby Lufthansa using a biofuel blend, the expansion of which to regular serviceshould in turn hasten the day when the Air Force could source large quantities of renewable fuel for its global operations. I would have liked to be able to follow up with questions about how the military sees the supply chains for renewable aviation fuel and other biofuels developing, but that will have to wait for another day.
The acid test of the military’s elevated priority on renewable energy and efficiency could come fairly soon. The President has already proposed cuts in defense spending, and the Senate’s “Gang of Six” proposal for extending the debt ceiling would cut even deeper. The military will face tough choices between investing to keep the “tip of the spear” sharp, and other, more peripheral investments such as those to reduce its energy and environmental footprint. Delivering energy to combat zones is dangerous and expensive, and programs to reduce fuel consumption and make combat units more self-sufficient will pay off in multiple ways. The larger question concerns the degree to which a cash-strapped military can and should attempt to provide an early market for new energy within its large support base, far from the deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.