The Fuse

U.S. Military Leverages Alternative, Efficient Energy Technology to Improve Warfighting Ability

by Leslie Hayward | April 13, 2016

At an event hosted by the Atlantic Council and The Fuse on Tuesday morning, experts convened to discuss the military’s efforts in energy efficiency and innovation, and clarified how these efforts not only save money and reduce fuel consumption—they improve the Department of Defense’s (DOD) effectiveness, and ultimately save lives of American soldiers.

“Every dollar is precious to the Department of Defense, and every dollar saved on energy is a dollar that can be spent on other aspects of the mission.”

The Honorable Dennis McGinn, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, & Environment, explained why the Navy is undergoing a sustained efforts towards reducing energy consumption and boosting use of alternative energy, and emphasized two main points. First, according to McGinn, this is not a short-term priority, nor is it one that will be abandoned once there is a change in presidential administration. Second, he noted, “We’re doing this not just because we’re ‘closet tree-huggers,’ but it’s because we are in the business of fielding the most expeditionary capable military and Marine Corps team we possibly can.” Although Navy officials talk about both the cost and environmental advantages of the program, he said, “This is all about warfighting: Primarily it’s about increasing mission effectiveness and operational efficiency.”

Over the course of the event, panelists highlighted specific technologies that have boosted the capabilities of forward deployed units in the field, increased the range of unmanned tactical weapons, and saved lives in places like Kandahar. “Transporting less crude oil means Marines can focus on fighting Al-Quaeda, rather than protecting convoys,” said McGinn. “Our main goal with the Navy’s energy programs is to enable our deployments to get there faster and stay there longer.”

The Navy’s efforts to decrease dependence on oil and other fossil fuels sets a standard for the rest of the country to follow, said Phyllis Cuttino, head of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ clean energy initiative. “Every dollar is precious to the Department of Defense, and every dollar saved on energy is a dollar that can be spent on other aspects of the mission.” She added that for the military, energy can be both “a risk and an enabler,” noting “80 percent of what we used at peak deployment and shipped to the battlefield used to be fuel. With our shift in strategy to the Asia-Pacific theater, we’re going to have to go further, our platforms are going to be more energy intensive, and we’re going to need more fuel. Looking ahead, DOD buys most of its fuel overseas, so when you look at operational energy this is not a fad—this has real staying power.”

Dr. Daniel Chiu emphasized that the low oil price environment does not change the military’s need to improve efficiency and decrease use of fuel. “In 2009, we were preoccupied with rising energy costs,” he said. “That’s not the concern now, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be again in the future.” Chiu is Deputy Director at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for strategy and force development for the U.S. Department of Defense.

In one anecdote, McGinn captured how renewable energy not only saves lives but also improves warfighting ability. The former Admiral said, “Our Marine Corps, since about 2010, in all of our expeditionary operations, has recognized the application of renewable energy where it makes sense. Probably the most dramatic example was in Kandahar in 2010: A company of Marines used solar panels to greatly cut down on diesel fuel to fuel the generators. This reduced the number of convoys the Marines had to bring in with fuel and water, and the shocking dismal fact was that there was one Marine killed or injured for every 50 convoys. Everything we could do at the forward edge to cut down on need for diesel fuel literally saved lives.”

“The shocking dismal fact was that there was one Marine killed or injured for every 50 convoys. Everything we could do at the forward edge to cut down on need for diesel fuel literally saved lives.”

“Importantly,” he continued, “it allowed marines in those forward operating bases to focus their efforts on going after the Taliban, not on guarding convoys. One of these bases came under fire from the Taliban: The Marines prevailed, and after the battle was over, they discovered a significant amount of damage to the solar panels in the base… but the lights never went off. Efficiency was down, but those panels kept producing electricity. If it had been a rocket propelled grenade that went into a diesel generator set, the lights would have gone off immediately, and many of the marines likely would have been killed.”

Progress following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Cuttino highlighted the tremendous strides that have been taken by the military over the past 10 years “This is enduring. If you look overall—according to the Department of Energy, DOD’s energy consumption has dropped to its lowest level since 1975.”

“What’s been happening on bases is nothing short of remarkable. As of 2015, DOD had reduced its facility energy intensity by almost 18 percent since 2003. It now procures 12 percent of its electricity from renewable resources. Petroleum consumption on the base vehicle fleet has been reduced by almost 34 percent—64 million gallons of gas annually. Energy savings projects have gone up to 1,300 between 2010 and 2012. Fifty percent of all microgrids deployed here in the U.S. are on military bases.”

Energy reliability is also a major concern for DOD. Cuttino said there were 87 power outages on bases in 2011 alone, each of which lasted 8 hours or more while costing taxpayers a total of 7 million dollars, which has “a real impact on mission assurance.”

Political headwinds remain, but are fading

Each panelist agreed that DOD’s current efforts are not a fad—even though oil prices remain low and some perceive a period of energy abundance. “Oil is inexpensive now, but we don’t make decisions on a quarterly basis: We see continued competition for energy in the future,” said McGinn.

“In fact, because of the long-term consequences of the low price of oil, it could ultimately constrain supplies, creating cost issues again.”

On the low price environment, panelists were also in agreement that low oil prices shouldn’t deter sustained efforts towards alternative energy sources. “We don’t gauge our efforts thinking about the next quarterly or annual report, or even the next election cycle,” said McGinn. “We think 5, 10, 15 years down the road, about the type of security environment in which our expeditionary team needs to prevail. We see a lot of competition for regular petroleum based fuel, and in the next 25-30 years, the global population will increase to over 9 billion by 2050, increasing prices for all energy sources, and the competition for those sources. So it makes sense for us to diversify our portfolio now. We don’t believe the abundance of petroleum we have now will continue for the next 3-5 decades.”

Chiu elaborated on the fact that DOD doesn’t see the current oil price environment as permanent. “In fact, because of the long-term consequences of the low price of oil, it could ultimately constrain supplies, creating cost issues again. It’s only prudent, then, to hedge on a diversity of long-term supplies of energy. We’re also seeing geopolitical issues that could impact the global oil market, so from a force development side, it’s important to really think about operational effectiveness and mission assurance.”

On the issue of priority shifts with new administrations, McGinn said, “Occasionally I get asked what happens to our energy initiatives and energy momentum after President Obama leaves. My answer is, ‘nothing.’ The business case is so powerful, for both warfighting and fiscal concerns—it just makes sense. It’s unfortunate that energy was so politicized in years past, but I think we’re getting over that very very quickly.”

The panel also noted the importance of the cultural shift towards energy at every level of the military, with McGinn praising the “rapidity” with which attitudes towards energy efficiency and alternative energy in the military are changing. However, that doesn’t mean that challenges don’t exist. “Energy is a priority without a premium,” said Cuttino, to illustrate that DOD is not equipped to pay more for renewable energy.

Partnerships with allies and the private sector

The Navy is actively working with numerous private companies to obtain the right applications of energy technology. Panelists noted partnerships with GE, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Sempra Energy, and that the military was matching these larger companies with smaller firms offering new innovations.

“It’s unfortunate that energy was so politicized in years past, but I think we’re getting over that very very quickly.”

McGinn also noted that the Navy has begun introducing samples of its biofuel blends to American allies who are engaged in the Asia-Pacific theater of operations. These drop-in biofuel blends are a direct substitute for petroleum fuel and have seen strong acceptance. New blends are also being developed in Italy and will be used in both the Italian and American navies. Additionally, McGinn noted cooperation with the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, as well as that of Australia, and Chile, and that there was a particular interest among allies for energy efficiency technology.

The most significant takeaway from the event was the fact that a sustained, long-term energy strategy would help save the military money while ultimately improving its warfighting capabilities. “Energy security, economic security, environmental security, and national security are all inextricably linked,” said McGinn. “You can’t do much in any of those areas without having some effect—positive or negative—in the other areas.”

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