Burke said that while finding more secure sources of energy has bipartisan, bicameral support on Capitol Hill, the demand for it comes from deployed commanders. She recalled a conversation on the topic with a colonel who’d just returned from Afghanistan.
“He said, ‘unleash us from the tether of fuel.’ The amount of fuel that we use and the kind of fuel that we use has become a strain on our operations, and it’s also putting our forces at risk,” she said. “People are dying moving fuel around. Our logistics and our supply lines are very vulnerable in this current fight. And it goes beyond that. The fuel we use to patrol the skies, to steam the seas, all of it, that tether is so big now that it’s become a liability.”
Burke spoke at an Information Technology Industry Council forum on Capitol Hill on Thursday. She said moving all that petroleum-based fuel around requires a huge force structure in and of itself, including fleets of Navy oilers and Air Force tankers, plus soldiers and Marines to move and protect fuel convoys in contested areas. All costs included, in tactical situations, the actual price of getting fuel where it needs to go in places like Afghanistan can be as high as $10-$50 per gallon, she said.
“The bottom line is that the department of Defense’s energy use has strategic and tactical consequences, and potential for great advantage,” she said. “Investments in energy security will lower the risk to our troops, increase our effectiveness and reduce our costs.”
DoD officials are also sensitive to the per-barrel price of petroleum on the global market. Sustained prices at $105-$110 per barrel would cost DoD an $1.5 billion this year, Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale testified before Congress this week. He said it was not clear how those costs would be covered. Each of the military services also are required to have their own energy strategies, and Burke said they’ve already developed them.
For example, the Army is using new materials to insulate its tents so it uses less fuel to run generators for heating and cooling. It is also building solar thermal sites at Fort Irwin in southern California. Those units will produce enough clean energy to fully power the base by 2014, with more than 400 megawatts left over to sell to private power companies, Army officials say.
The Air Force, DoD’s largest user of fuel, is undertaking a major fuel efficiency initiative in its Air Mobility Command, the component that flies the military’s fuel, personnel and supplies all over the world. They intend to cut fuel costs by $500 million, and have half of their fuel come from renewable blends by 2016.
Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the service was trying to develop incentives to ensure the fuel savings were not a one-time event
“That means being able to invest some up-front dollars before they get some payback, but we’re also thinking about when they achieve those dollars, how do we help them see that we will then reinvest to help them get the next level of savings, so that you’re constantly providing the investment to get to the next level in energy efficiency,” she said.
The Navy and Marine Corps are promising energy savings of $566 million in fiscal year 2012 alone, Navy Undersecretary Robert Work said at the same hearing.
“On shore, for example, we’re having steam plants replaced,” he said. “There’s a wide variety of photovoltaics that we’re putting on tops of roofs. We’re putting hull coatings on our ships. Marines deploying to Afghanistan are using portable solar cells. We’re doing smart voyage planning software so we can plan the most efficient routes. All of that takes fewer fuel trucks to take fuel out to forward operating bases. We expect to achieve these savings through true energy efficiencies, not by cutting operations.”
Burke said the entire department has come to the realization that it uses more energy than it should, and the trend line has only been going up. She said DoD is a good place for the country to focus its investments in energy research, not only because it uses so much petroleum, but because most of its missions are not optional. “Our real power of persuasion is that we have a mission that we must conduct, and we need to use energy differently,” she said. “There’s a lot of power in seeding our pull for innovation in that Defense mission. We’ve done it before in a number of places.”
Congress also put her office in charge of a new energy innovation fund to be used for research and development, and procurement of energy technology. She said she hopes to use that fund to help DoD do a better job of reaching out to industry to cooperatively develop and implement alternative energy.
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