How the U.S. Military Is Trying to Cut Its Enormous Energy Appetite

The Pentagon makes energy savings a higher priority.

A Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) is driven by Maj. Greg Orell at Fort Myer, Virginia. The non-tactical electric vehicles are usually used on Army bases for passenger transport, security patrol, and maintenance and delivery services.

A Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) is driven by Maj. Greg Orell at Fort Myer, Virginia.

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It was a blunt message that came a little more than a year ago from an influential Pentagon task force. Charged with looking into the Department of Defense's strategy for saving energy, the Defense Science Board concluded that the DOD didn't seem to have one. The report further noted that the department was rather too nonchalant about its "unnecessarily high, and growing" fuel use.

That was a considerable wake-up call for the military, and it wasn't the first. Back in 2003, a Marine commanding general in Iraq pleaded in a widely circulated letter to be "unleashed from the tether of fuel." Now, such demands are growing louder. That's because throughout the military, the energy-saving imperative goes beyond good-hearted civic esprit de corps. U.S. military fuel convoys draw insurgent attacks and cost soldiers' lives. The more fuel consumed, the more complex the logistics and the greater the risk to troops.

Such life-and-death imperatives pose a key question within the halls of the Pentagon: Can the U.S. military go green? After all, this is the government branch that brought in the 68-ton M1 Abrams tank, which gets 0.6 mile per gallon. The humvee, logging 4 miles per gallon in the city and 8 on highways, seems downright efficient in comparison.

The answer currently coming out of the Department of Defense is that it had better go green. Today, the Air Force and Army, the Defense Department's two biggest energy consumers, are under strict orders to look into ways to become more earnest energy savers. The potential savings, senior defense officials say, are enormous. So, too, is the possibility for the military to be a catalyst for new technologies applicable in the civilian world.

Flying lighter. Some studies pointedly note that there is plenty of room for improvement within the U.S. military. The Air Force, for example, is the single largest consumer of fuel in the federal government and buys 10 percent of all aviation fuel in the United States. Last year, it burned through 2.4 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of $7.7 billion.

The Air Force is now working hard to change that, delving into the possibilities of using alternative fuels. By 2016, if a supply exists, the Air Force will buy a 50/50 blend of synthetic aviation fuel for half of its domestic supply, according to Kevin Billings, the acting assistant secretary for installations, environment, and logistics. He notes that the military can help drive the development of energy-saving technologies by providing a large market for industry innovation. "What we're hoping," he says, "is that that'll provide enough confidence and predictability in the private economy to fund alternative fuels."

In the meantime, the Air Force is taking measures that are decidedly low tech, starting with its fleet of heavy cargo planes. The C-17s and C-130s, the workhorses that fly the big guns, trucks, and battalions of troops into war zones, had some of the greatest room for improvement. Airmen began by looking at the basics, examining ways to lighten the load of the planes. They got rid of floor mats, redundant tools in toolboxes, and even the binders that held the old, thick paper manuals, which they loaded onto laptops instead. They also looked at how to get the most accurate weather reports to better gauge fuel needs. "We used to fill our planes full of fuel," says Billings, "and dump it because you can only land with a certain amount of fuel."

Then there was the paint—on the B-1 bomber, for example. "We put 5,000 pounds of paint on it before we looked at it," says Billings. With new coating methods replacing the old paint, the Air Force is able to reduce the weight by 2,000 pounds and increase fuel efficiency. The Air Force estimates it saves 1 million pounds of fuel—roughly 156,000 gallons—a year for every 100 pounds of weight taken off a plane.

Within the Pentagon, the Defense Science Board's task force prompted a question from Secretary of the Army Pete Geren. "He wanted to know what the applicability was to the Army and what the Army could be doing," recalls Paul Bollinger, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for energy and partnerships. At one point during a briefing in August, Geren "looked at me and said, 'Why don't we just go to electric vehicles?' And just like a TV commercial, we said, 'Brilliant, sir.' Right from there we shifted gears immediately and determined what we could do."