Fighting the Military on Energy Strategy

For several years, the U.S. military has been one of the most active proponents and early-adopters of renewable energy and alternative fuels, with their Operational Energy Strategy.  Why?  Several reasons:

1.  Fuel delivered to the remote front-lines such as in Afghanistan for use in power generation and transportation has an “all-in” cost of $400/gallon.  Any energy source that can be supplied locally, such as solar, to reduce fuel has significant potential for economic savings.

2.  Being of critical logistical importance, convoys to deliver fuel are often the target of insurgent attacks, resulting in casualties to American servicemen and -women.  Anything that can reduce the quantity and frequency of these convoys should obviously be a very good thing.

3.  In buying so much oil, America sends hundreds of billions of dollars each year to regimes that not only don’t like the U.S., but actively attack U.S. interests.  As many astute observers such as James Woolsey, former head of the CIA has said on a number of occasions, “we are funding both sides of the war on terror.”  Military reliance upon oil is a key contributing factor.

Now comes James Bartis of the RAND Corporation, who argues in a recent study that “military planners are afflicted with petroleum anxiety.”  He says that the military shouldn’t be so worried about oil price increases and supply insecurity:  “they think prices are heading in only one direction:  up.  But history teaches us otherwise.”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is piling on to this argument.  McCain is alleging that the U.S. DOD long-term strategy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is “an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money.”  In the mother of all current smears, McCain is wary of “another Solyndra” that might stem from this effort.

I pronounce Bartis and McCain guilty of imprudent short-term thinking — which is surprising and highly disappointing, since I have generally considered RAND and McCain himself as having a good grasp of the big picture. 

Fortunately, the military is keeping its head down and pushing forward with its plans:  earlier this month, the Army released a $7 billion RFP for renewable and alternative energy projects to be installed over the next 10 years.

The military’s energy strategy is not solely or even mainly about minimizing $/gallon or c/kwh, and it’s certainly not about environmental benefits.  This is about building and operating a military that is best suited to win against a dispersed enemy that derives its income from oil sales and targets oil supply lines to impede American military effectiveness and kill Americans. 

Period. 

Reducing oil consumption as much and as quickly as reasonably practicable is key to unhooking our military from this thorny problem.  True, part of reducing oil consumption is through increased efficiency, but part of reducing oil consumption can also be via substitution of alternatives:  biofuels, solar, and wind.

Whether the military’s push for renewable energy will be as successful as desired is unclear.  However, the only way to know is to try.  If they don’t try, the U.S. military — and our country more generally — will just paint itself further into the corner in which it finds itself strategically today.

5 replies
  1. Cliff Claven
    Cliff Claven says:

    Time to put some myths to rest. Instead of wild guesses, the military has now put intellectual rigor into its "fully burdened cost of fuel" (FBCF) which prices in all the externalities of transportation and casualties. The highest per gallon cost is for delivery by air in a hostile environment and is now estimated at $40 (not $400) per gallon, and the lowest cost is $3 per gallon. (Schwartz, Moshe, Katherine Blakeley, and Ronald O’Rourke. Department of Defense Energy Initiatives: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2012. http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/19370… ). The U.S. buys oil from 80 different countries, and these purchases are made by refineries on the open market looking for the best price, not by government mandate. We currently only buy 10% of our oil (only 4% of our total national energy), from all Persian Gulf countries combined. We purchase zero oil from nations on the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. We could buy our Persian gulf oil from Mexico or Canada or Nigeria, etc. if we wanted to pay more for lesser quality just to feel better–it's a free market. BTW, ethanol prices are higher on a MPG-corrected basis than gasoline, and they follow the price of gasoline up and down. There are no savings in biofuels because they are critically dependent upon fossil fuels that make their fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, farm equipment and refinery fuel, and hydrogen for hydrotreating the final alcohol or lipid into a true hydrocarbon “drop-in” fuel that is required by the airlines and the military. The vast majority of the energy in hydrotreated biofuel is from fossil fuel. The military consumes less than 1% of U.S. energy, and 0.38% of global oil—not nearly enough to make the slightest difference to market price, period. To power the 10-ton A/C unit for a single operations center tent in Iraq requires a 40kW generator. To replace that generator would require 40 tents covered with solar panels. Transporting those 40 tents and setting them up and taking them down with each move on the battlefield in potentially hostile conditions would require additional trucks and people and their weapons and food and water. The additional liquid fuel required to transport all that stuff dwarves the tiny amount saved by not running a single generator. Wind turbines capture even less energy per square meter. Some fuel can be made from waste, but it is a small energy stream, not nearly enough to power vehicles, which are your major fuel consumers. You’d have to dedicate convoys and suffer casualties just to ship additional waste into theater to make fuel, and it would take a lot more tons of waste than just shipping in the fuel itself. Beware biofuels policy advice written by entrepreneurs. The use “brochure science” rather than real science.

    • Will S.
      Will S. says:

      Cliff said;

      "The highest per gallon cost is for delivery by air in a hostile environment and is now estimated at $40 (not $400) per gallon"

      Even your own reference acknowledges that there is indeed $400/gal oil, though only in very specific situations. Of course, when tanker convoys are destroyed 20 trucks at a time, that severely raises the ground transport price per gallon.

      – Defense Science Board, More Capable Warfighting Through Reduced Fuel Burden, May 2001, pp. 14-20.

      "The widely-repeated $400 per gallon figure represents a very specific scenario: a multi-stage helicopter resupply of forces 600km beyond secure supply lines. Costs for more common fuel delivery methods are significantly lower – the report estimates that ground delivery over short distances would cost approximately $10 per gallon, while ground delivery over longer distances would cost between $40-50 per gallon."

      Cliff said;
      " We currently only buy 10% of our oil (only 4% of our total national energy), from all Persian Gulf countries combined. "

      That's an interesting statistic. According to the EIA, over 40% of our imports come from OPEC nations, most of whom are in the Middle East or Africa, with the less than friendly Venezuela rounding out the list. http://www.eia.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/data_pub

      Cliff said;

      " We could buy our Persian gulf oil from Mexico or Canada or Nigeria, etc"

      That would only force our allies to buy from those countries we would be pretending to ignore. Oil is fungible, so is traded freely.

      Cliff said;

      "Wind turbines capture even less energy per square meter"

      This represents an apples and potatoes comparison – wind turbine farms only take up 1/5 – 5% of the square footage of a wind farm (which is why farmers love them). There is nothing remotely comparable between the two in this specific regard.

  2. Cliff Claven
    Cliff Claven says:

    Time to put some myths to rest. Instead of wild guesses, the military has now put intellectual rigor into its "fully burdened cost of fuel" (FBCF) which prices in all the externalities of transportation and casualties. The highest per gallon cost is for delivery by air in a hostile environment and is now estimated at $40 (not $400) per gallon, and the lowest cost is $3 per gallon. (Schwartz, Moshe, Katherine Blakeley, and Ronald ORourke. Department of Defense Energy Initiatives: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, June 5, 2012. http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/19370… ). The U.S. buys oil from 80 different countries, and these purchases are made by refineries on the open market looking for the best price, not by government mandate. We currently only buy 10% of our oil (only 4% of our total national energy), from all Persian Gulf countries combined. We purchase zero oil from nations on the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. We could buy our Persian gulf oil from Mexico or Canada or Nigeria, etc. if we wanted to pay more for lesser quality just to feel better–it's a free market. BTW, ethanol prices are higher on a MPG-corrected basis than gasoline, and they follow the price of gasoline up and down. There are no savings in biofuels because they are critically dependent upon fossil fuels that make their fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, farm equipment and refinery fuel, and hydrogen for hydrotreating the final alcohol or lipid into a true hydrocarbon drop-in fuel that is required by the airlines and the military. The vast majority of the energy in hydrotreated biofuel is from fossil fuel. The military consumes less than 1% of U.S. energy, and 0.38% of global oilnot nearly enough to make the slightest difference to market price, period. To power the 10-ton A/C unit for a single operations center tent in Iraq requires a 40kW generator. To replace that generator would require 40 tents covered with solar panels. Transporting those 40 tents and setting them up and taking them down with each move on the battlefield in potentially hostile conditions would require additional trucks and people and their weapons and food and water. The additional liquid fuel required to transport all that stuff dwarves the tiny amount saved by not running a single generator. Wind turbines capture even less energy per square meter. Some fuel can be made from waste, but it is a small energy stream, not nearly enough to power vehicles, which are your major fuel consumers. Youd have to dedicate convoys and suffer casualties just to ship additional waste into theater to make fuel, and it would take a lot more tons of waste than just shipping in the fuel itself. Beware biofuels policy advice written by entrepreneurs. They use brochure science rather than real science.

  3. Northern Alliance
    Northern Alliance says:

    We must encourage the military to use renewable energy. Right now it is pretty even compared to the national grid so the investment will pay off eventually when fuel prices rise. If you own your own power then you have greater control over costs & political situations etc.

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  1. […] For several years, the U.S. military has been one of the most active proponents and early-adopters of renewable energy and alternative fuels, with their Operational Energy Strategy.  Why?  Several reasons: 1.  Fuel delivered to the remote front-lines such as in Afghanistan for use in power generation and transportation has an “all-in” cost of $ 400/gallon.  Any energy source […] Cleantech Blog […]

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