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Changing the Military's Energy Culture

Geoffrey Styles's picture
GSW Strategy Group, LLC

Geoffrey Styles is Managing Director of GSW Strategy Group, LLC, an energy and environmental strategy consulting firm. Since 2002 he has served as a consultant and advisor, helping organizations...

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  • Jul 21, 2011

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.

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jul 21, 2011

Simply putting the issue before the public is an important contribution by our armed forces.

I have not heard agriculture ask how they might become more energy self-reliant. Most of the admittedly few farmers I know are of the “drill baby drill” belief that there is a hundred years of oil in No. Dak., while telling the public their fuels are for sustainable energy. And climate concerns are probably less common, except this heat wave killed so much livestock that rendering companies can’t keep up. Please don’t think I’m amused, just very sad and confused.

One small thing of personal note; with this Minnesota budget battle now over the U. of Minnesota is getting a “nanothechnology” physics building and “medical nmr”(?) funding. In ancient days I pushed this focus but didn’t budge the superconductivity types. Chemical (bio)physics and nanotechnology are an applied physics intended for commercial benefit. Renewable energy will certainly now be an area of interest within the physics dept. The state pulled a lot of teeth to get that money.

Good to know we are moving forward.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 24, 2011


I so much tire of the Military being subsumed into politics and politically correct gestures. The Role of our Military  is not to stick it to “Big Oil”, nor is it to make contributions toward the Green Energy effort. The role of the Military is to find and eliminate (with extreme prejudice) enemy threats.

The question posed by Geoff is so poignant that it should go without having to be asked. I am at a loss to understand how or why there are people who just can’t or don’t want to  get it.

I prefer to let Universities, Industries, and government agencies tasked to do research, find and provide the green energy answers, then let the Military use such answers as may be applicable to their express mission needs.

We do not have the funding to waste on expensive experiments at the potential risk of arming, supplying, and compensation for our war fighters.

Does anyone even remember a little thing called the National Debt?

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jul 25, 2011

One of the speakers cited the example of the 1/16 infantry Battallion (“Iron Rangers”) deployed to Afghanistan with gear such as you describe, so the market is there.  Sounds like you need to find the right connection into the procurement process.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Jul 29, 2011

The biggest single fuel costs on the ground are with generating electricity. The biggest overall are in the air in US Air Force aircraft.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jul 29, 2011


That’s right, and to the dollar cost of those fuels you have to add the substantial costs of delivering them to deployed combat units, including both haulage costs and significant risk and frequent casualties for the personnel involved.  That’s one reason it’s fairly easy for the military to justify renewables that would look very expensive here.  Of course that logic doesn’t apply to bases in the US, Germany, Japan, etc.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jul 29, 2011

Just to clarify for those unfamiliar with the terminology, M1 here would refer to the Abrams main battle tank and its British and German counterparts.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 29, 2011

The US Navy has introduced a new “hybrid” propulsion system for some of its ship.  Not “gas+electric” like in a hybrid car, but diesel for efficiency (and slow) long range cruising plus a gas turbine for short fast sprints.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jul 29, 2011

There are many ways to view the military’s budget, including as a % of GDP, on which basis it is currently fairly low by historical standards and in line with that of potential adversaries.  Roughly 45% of it goes to pay salaries and benefits and only about 3% is spent on liquid fuels.  Either way, the point here is that it’s a lot easier to add new, non-weapons spending when defense budgets are growing faster than inflation, rather than when they’re under significant pressure to make cuts, along with the rest of the non-entitlement federal budget. 

Adam Siegel's picture
Adam Siegel on Aug 1, 2011

Your question focused on “costs” that seemingly don’t have a payoff.

Clearly, the solar panels in deployed areas that enable recharging batteries in a patrol or which offset oil that needs to be shipped via Pakistan deep into Afghanistan have a very different payoff than solar panels on military bases in the domestic United States. Investing in the first actually doesn’t come ‘at the expense’ of other things but enables them due to reduced costs (such as significantly reduced logistics chains). The second, however, creates another serious value chain:  resiliency of the power system at the bases.  (Buying wind off the grid doesn’t have the same claim …)  The 2008 DSB Study on energy focused on two arenas: liquid fuel reliance/vulnerabilities and the risk to the military due to vulnerabilities in the civilian energy system (notably electricity). Those solar panels on bases supporting ‘net zero’ bases fosters resiliency in the face of natural or man-made disruption of the electrical grid.  That has a value stream.

As for renewable aviation fuels, isn’t the question about how much investment can the military afford in R&D to enable more capable and sustainable forces in the future?  DOD invests in developing better radars. DOD invest in materials research. Etc … Why shouldn’t the military invest in fuels that — while extremely expensive today — have a viable prospect of being cost competitive and could help reduce other challenges. And, by the way, that the DOD investment today has the prospect of hastening the time when these fuels are cost competitive and available in quantity for military application. 

Your question is, imo, part of a much broader question: how much investment in tomorrow can the DOD maintain in the face of budget constraints? 

Even on the second, however, the Defense Science Board identified (during the Bush Administration

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?

This of course differs by arena.


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