“Yes We Can” Meets “No We Won’t”


The Disconnect from within the Administration on Renewable Energy

By Bill Anderson

The Honorable William C. (“Bill”) Anderson served as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Logistics and the Air Force Senior Energy Executive under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.  The author can be contacted at [email protected].

02/16/2011 – President George W. Bush set a national priority to wean this country off its addiction to foreign oil.  President Barack Obama set aggressive goals via Executive Order that mandate dramatically increased use of renewable energy by Federal agencies, including replacing fossil-based liquid transportation fuels with bio-derived alternatives.

Yet despite clear messages from two Commanders-in-Chief, debate continues within the Pentagon as to whether the military should embrace the mandate.  And, as Nero fiddles, Rome continues to burn. Our dependency on foreign sources of energy grows…our adversaries gain control of precious fossil energy resources in all corners of the globe…and alternative energy technological development overseas outpaces our own efforts here at home.

The most recent example of this foot dragging can be seen in the recent RAND Corporation report titled “Alternative Fuels for Military Applications”.

Credit: Rand Corporation

This report takes a “tactical view” of where the military should deploy its resources in the alternative fuels area, essentially concluding that it is a huge waste of time for the US military to engage in the overall effort to develop bio-fuels.

Putting aside for a moment the costs…the financial and human toll required to secure access to critical energy resources…the RAND study fails to attach value to having the Federal government’s largest energy user actively involved in promoting emerging technologies that might significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. RAND highlights the fact that neither the Congress nor the Secretary of Defense has directed the Services to pursue use of alternative fuels in tactical weapon systems.  Now, is that any surprise?

We have yet to develop a comprehensive national energy strategy.  And, has it been lost that in the past the military has been first in recognizing the value of emerging technologies.  Could this be yet another case where the Services are, in fact, on to something here?

The study was called for in the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009.  The legislation specifically requested several identified issues be addressed.  Those topics, listed below, are accompanied by comments as to how the RAND study missed the mark on addressing those important issues:

Opportunities to produce alternative fuels in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.It is common knowledge that use of renewable feedstocks to produce energy dramatically reduces net greenhouse gas emissions.  RAND acknowledges that when biomass is used to produce fuel via the Fischer-Tropsch process, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions can range from zero to negative, performance not attainable from fossil feedstocks.

Yet, RAND proclaims in another section of the report that because alternative and conventional fuels release the same amount of greenhouse gases during combustion, feedstock source cannot impact lifecycle GHG emissions…a significant divergence from common understanding. The military utility of concepts for production in or close to the theater of military operations compared to domestic production.

How we produce and deliver energy to the battlespace is indeed critical…in terms of cost, logistics, security of supply and, most importantly, loss of human life.  And, specific strategies to produce fuel in or as close to the battlespace as possible provide important options.  RAND’s conclusion that traditional means of transporting fuel into the theater continues to be the most practical military solution raises some serious concerns.

I suppose we have totally forgotten about the tremendous loss this nation has endured…life and limb of our brightest and best young people…and the crushing commitment of national treasure to simply deliver energy to the field of battle. Also, have we forgotten that huge volumes of energy used on military installations here in the US?  As valuable as producing energy in or close to the theater of military operations is, it is equally valuable to do the same for domestic military installations.  Distributed energy production facilities utilizing local bio-feedstocks offer important renewable options for military facilities here in the US.

The goals and progress of research, testing and certification for use of alternative fuels in military vehicles and aircraft.The RAND study takes issue with the fact that military test and certification efforts seem to be far ahead of commercial development of fuels production capacity.  Technical teams in the Services have done an admirable job in quick and cost-effective test and certification efforts.  Those efforts have supported private sector initiatives…such as the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.  The private sector is looking at billions of dollars of infrastructure investment to develop the alternative fuels industry.  Financial commitments of that magnitude require some degree of certainty of customer demand.  Testing and certification is one critical step in creating that demand.

Credit: RAND Study on Alternative Fuels for Military Applications, Rand Corporation

Prospect for commercial production of nonpetroleum military fuels.The world economic crisis, environmental concerns and fluctuating energy prices all play a role in creating uncertainty for those who would invest in the development of alternative fuels production facilities.  Nonetheless, several commercial scale facilities are operational around the world, and initial planning and permitting for a small number of US-based facilities is currently underway.  Prospects for producers improve with increases in demand…large customers can move the needle on demand.  DoD is such a customer.

It is critically important to remember that our military has long sponsored development of technologies that, while having significant value to military operations, had even more importance in the commercial world.  Federal government R&D…shared with the private sector…has created impressive competitive advantages for US companies in the past. Our global competitors understand this…they are leveraging similar opportunities.  The question is…have we forgotten?  One must look only as far as the jet engine, personal computing, GPS and the internet to understand the relationship between technologies developed for the military and the unbelievable commercial value that follows…which, by the way, contribute to the general welfare worldwide.

RAND notes the uncertainty as to price and environmental impact related to these emerging alternative fuels as a justification to dismiss the future potential value.  So, I take that to mean the military never faced uncertainty in the past when it participated in early stage development of technologies?   Well, of course, it did. The military responded by using its tremendous science, technology and business expertise to solve the tough problems…not run away from them.  Shouldn’t that be exactly how the Pentagon positions itself to move the ball on renewable energy? One should never discount the effect of a major customer announcing its intention to change purchasing habits…and DoD is such a customer.  It’s argued that DoD only consumes a small percentage of the total global fuel production.

Nonetheless, the US military represents one of the largest individual consumers of energy.  As such, DoD can position itself to influence the market…both as a first mover itself and by influencing the purchasing habits of its commercial vendors. Large and influential organizations have long understood the ability to move the market.  DoD possesses that ability to use its size and buying power to partner with the commercial world…and to facilitate the move toward energy security via renewable resources that has been promoted by the last two Administrations.The controversy generated by the RAND report will be dismissed by some as a non-issue…saying the study was only focused on current tactical requirements.

However, we should expect more from the work product of high-paid consultants…especially when it’s paid from taxpayer dollars.  There will be tactical requirements tomorrow…in a world with ever-depleting fossil resources.  Particularly when tensions in those regions we so desperately rely on for the raw feedstocks to manufacture our liquid fuels could (and some would argue are) continue to escalate…making access to these resources ever more questionable.

So, should the US military focus only on tactical issues of the here and now…or should our military take efforts to ensure its tactical effectiveness in the future as well?  No matter where you stand on the debate on Peak Oil, one thing we know…fossil fuels are not a renewable resource. So, in the future bio-fuel availability will clearly have tactical implications to US military operations.  Doesn’t a bit of prudent preparation make huge sense? The nation continues to struggle to make substantive progress on conversion to renewable energy sources and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.  To quote an overused saying…“the time to act is now”.  Leaders must lead…and they have to lead now.  Leadership requires risks to be taken…for change to be aggressively pursued. Although the DoD is poised to say “yes we can” and become a major force behind renewable energy development in this country, that opportunity continues to run head first into a brick wall of “no we won’t”.  One must ask why they won’t.  Are the results of the RAND study being used as a justification to kick the can down the road thereby avoiding the clear direction set by Presidents Bush and Obama?


Additional Reference:

For a comprehensive look at innovations in support of the energy needs for the deployed warfighter, see an earlier Special Report entitled “The Tip of the Spear.”