Services Transition to New Energy Sources

February 2007
By Rita Boland

The military is determining ways to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by developing alternative energy sources. The United States gets much
of its energy from unstable regions
of the world.
U.S. military branches can lead the way in conservation practices and alternative technologies.

The U.S. military services are turning their attention to energy practices and energy sources as a matter of national defense and security. As debates rage over oil costs and usage as well as the question of when peak oil—the highest rate at which oil can be pumped from the Earth—will be achieved, the service branches are examining ways to use fuel more wisely and exploring alternative energy sources. While experts disagree on many energy issues, most agree that the United States needs to develop renewable and sustainable energy options now to prepare for the future, and the military must take a lead role in that paradigm shift.

U.S. Defense Department officials are examining and transforming military energy policies in operations and infrastructure. The Office of Force Transformation began looking at energy several years ago when officials there determined that it would be a key piece of the department’s transformation strategy. According to Terry Pudas, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces, transformation and resources, energy is starting to play a significant role with global security implications.

Within the individual services, leaders are exploring ways to reduce dependency on oil energy sources by developing renewable alternatives and reducing consumption. Decision makers recognize that changes stateside and abroad can reap substantial savings.

The U.S. Air Force is evaluating the way it consumes energy overseas and at home for transportation, infrastructure and other needs. Michael Aimone, assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, installations and mission support, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, explains that the Air Force is pursuing alternative sources of energy and energy conservation efforts. He also emphasizes that the service has approximately 360,000 airmen, only 20,000 of whom are deployed, so the Air Force is expending much of its energy stateside. Aimone says the Air Force has to take a holistic approach to solving energy problems, from encouraging installations to conserve more to flying aircraft over shorter routes and using flex-fuel vehicles that can run on motor gasoline as well as ethanol 85, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

Aimone cites Scott Air Force Base (AFB), Illinois, as an example to illustrate how much energy a typical installation generally uses. In fiscal year 2006, Scott AFB facility energy consumption totaled 813,653 million British thermal units. All fuels expended by Scott AFB aircraft and vehicles in fiscal year 2006 totaled 2,271,010 gallons. The base reduced its energy consumption by 34.8 percent from fiscal year 1985 to fiscal year 2005.

Between those years, the entire Air Force lowered its installation energy usage by 30 percent. Base closures during that period neither benefited nor harmed the effort because the energy usage was measured per square foot of space. The reduction resulted from a combination of new technology, rebuilding and major modifications to existing buildings as well as energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems; effective energy setback in which heaters and air conditioners were adjusted for reduced usage during strategic times; and efficient use of energy by airmen. Aimone explains that all airmen have to be involved in the conservation process and that they can do so without adversely affecting their quality of life.

The service also is using alternative energy sources. It gets 11 percent of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind, biomass and solar energy. Approximately one-quarter of the Air Force’s 12,000 stateside general-purpose vehicles operate with flex-fuel technology, and Aimone says that all new vehicles have to be flex-fuel capable. In addition, about 8 percent of the diesel used by the Air Force is biodiesel.

On the aviation side, the service is conserving energy by working with international partners to achieve diplomatic clearance to fly over certain countries, straightening the path between points A and B. Through negotiations with certain European nations, the flight time from the United States to Afghanistan has been reduced by 100 minutes. The Air Force also intends for 50 percent of all aviation fuels to be blended synthetic fuels by 2016. It is in the midst of an aviation demonstration to show that synthetic fuels can be employed in aviation.

Two of the four wind turbines at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are seen from the base of the highest of the structures, which were built in 2005. The services are looking toward alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power to provide energy for installations.
Aimone says the United States and its military must plan for future oil shortages now to avoid major problems later. “If we don’t start it now, we will be on a crash program later,” he states. Aimone says the Air Force views energy as an important strategy for the 21st century. Instead of waiting for a crisis to occur, the service wants to plan for the long term and address energy aspects of supply and demand, aviation, installations and ground transportation. He stresses the need to incorporate many energy alternatives and conservation methods because “to do one is inefficient.”

The U.S. Army also is exploring alternative energy sources, along with studying how installations use energy and how these practices can be adjusted and reduced. The Army has several energy strategy goals, including diminishing Army dependence on foreign sources of oil. However, Frank Holcomb, project lead for the fuel cell development team, Army Engineer Research and DevelopmentCenter, says that forgoing oil use is a far-off goal. “We will not be able to be completely independent of oil anytime soon,” he states.

Instead, the Army is studying alternative energy technologies that can complement oil usage. The service has demonstrated fuel cell technologies, solar power and wind power at various installations in the United States. It also has long-term goals regarding coal, such as converting it to a liquid fuel. Holcomb explains that from a Defense Department perspective, the military has flexibility with its fuels because it can use ethanol or biodiesel and because it employs other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Alternative energy source testing is being conducted on stateside bases, which are larger than their overseas counterparts and require more power. Many of the installations have remote training locations that provide good environments for testing wind and solar power. All of the technical demonstrations are closely monitored, and feedback is provided to manufacturers so they can develop better products for the Army and for commercial customers.

High-level Army leaders in Iraq are asking for alternative fuels. “The cost of fuel is being measured in terms of lives taken to guard that fuel,” Holcomb says. Holcomb believes that, overseas, small amounts of wind and solar power could be effective. A present problem in the field—biowaste—offers a potential energy solution. Biowaste is generated in huge amounts. Holcomb recalls an experience he had at an Army camp overseas where biowaste from care packages filled two semitrucks. Currently, the military burns that waste, but Holcomb says there is a big push to convert it into usable energy such as a type of synthetic fuel. Many contractors have come forward with alternative uses for the waste, and the Army is trying to sort out what works. “It’s a little better to try these out in the United States than to try them out in a theater of operations where the main mission is warfighting,” Holcomb shares.

By 2025, the Army plans to obtain 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources, whether through generating its own power or purchasing renewable energy credits from utility companies. Army decision makers are examining energy conservation practices and energy-efficient devices, and Holcomb shares that the Army’s constant goal has been to find and take advantage of emerging and off-the-shelf technologies.

The lack of energy generation at military posts poses a potential security threat. Most Army bases purchase their power; few have generation devices on-site. While the blackouts in various parts of the country in recent years have not significantly impacted military missions, a massive blackout or natural disaster could prohibit warfighters from carrying out their duties. According to Holcomb, the Army is looking toward alternative power generation devices to increase energy reliability on bases.

One viable alternative source for energy generation is the fuel cell. This power source can scale easily and perform efficiently without a full load, unlike combustion power sources. When scaled, a fuel cell system can continue to operate even if one cell fails or is powered down for maintenance.

Holcomb and his colleagues also are addressing warfighter applications for alternative power. The current fuel-forward mandate permits troops to take only diesel and JP-8 fuel into the battlefield. Developers are exploring fuel alternatives for possible use when the mandate no longer is in effect. Holcomb states that they might be able to make hydrogen out of water in the battlefield using an electrolyzer, then use the hydrogen to produce energy. Troops would benefit from alternatives to diesel generators, which produce noise, emissions and heat signatures.

Echoing Aimone, Holcomb says the Defense Department needs to start examining energy alternatives now and that efforts are underway to make changes. He adds that the military is a juggernaut that will not adapt quickly. However, modifications in the way the services approach and use energy, and new technologies they develop to conserve and produce energy, will have a ripple effect that will impact the U.S. public.

Experts suggest several reasons for the slow pace at which energy use trends change. One is technology. Another is that energy facts are not provided objectively and openly. Dr. Paul Sullivan, professor of economics at the NationalDefenseUniversity and adjunct professor of security studies at GeorgetownUniversity, says that most people work from emotions and politics when it comes to energy debates. According to Sullivan, the real security threat facing the United States is transportation. “About 99 percent of transportation is oil based,” he explains. For other energy needs, the United States relies on a mix of sources including coal, natural gas and nuclear power. He believes that the services can be a vanguard in energy change.

As with Holcomb, Sullivan asserts that the cost of oil dependency is measured not only in dollars but also in the lives required to protect and transport oil. He claims that the country would have fewer global problems if the United States and the military services could find different fuels and different ways to transport them and could form more reliable fuel alliances. “This transition will change our national security strategies in some ways,” he states. “We won’t have to focus on the oil states if we can produce our own transportation fuels.”


Web Resources
Office of Force Transformation:
U.S. Army Engineer Research and DevelopmentCenter: