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."
But nothing is simple in the government, Bollinger adds. "We went through a long, laborious process." Then, in January, the Army announced that it planned to lease 4,000 "neighborhood electric vehicles"—the largest order of its kind—to use for passenger transport, security patrols, and maintenance and delivery services at various bases around the country. These street-legal vehicles, which are also being developed for civilian use, look like futuristic golf carts, and they reach top speeds of about 25 miles per hour. In their downtime, they can be plugged in at recharging stations; each charge can last 30 miles. The plan is for the Army to take delivery of the 4,000 over a three-year period, with the first six vehicles recently supplied by a division of the Chrysler Corp. In the future, the Army plans to develop battlefield hybrid-electric "manned ground vehicles." Such innovations, say officials, will cut the Army's dependence on fossil fuels as well as the number of refueling convoys in combat.
On another front, officials have rewritten building design standards, modeling them on stores like Wal-Mart, to make better use of natural light. "It's an easy one, but we weren't doing it because skylights leaked 30 years ago," says Bollinger. Today, they support smart wiring, so that as the sun rises and sets or storms roll in and out, lights dim and brighten. The Army also has projects in geothermal energy in Hawthorne, Nev., drilling wells to access 300-degree water that creates steam to generate electricity and power installations. The goal is to have enough energy left over to provide power to the surrounding community.
Going solar. At Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the Air Force finished installing more than 70,000 solar panels on 140 acres of unused land last December to create a vast renewable energy source. The solar panels, called "trackers," follow the movement of the sun and are connected to the base electrical grid, saving the military roughly $83,000 on its monthly electric bill. The Air Force is also investigating green power, including ice storage systems that freeze water at night and then melt it to cool buildings throughout the day "at a much more efficient rate,"according to Billings.
Officials point out that these measures are even more vital during times of war, when fuel consumption patterns change dramatically and costs rise. Even during peacetime, U.S. Army installations are the biggest consumers of fuel. But during war, fuel consumption within the Army increases markedly, and the price of a $2 tank of gas can soar to $25, once the cost of delivery is factored in. There is the fuel it takes to deliver the fuel, for example, and the wear and tear on the convoys that haul it around. What's more, generators' fuel consumption, which normally accounts for 2 or 3 percent of the Army's overall energy use, skyrockets to 22 percent during wartime.
To cut down on the generators' heavy workload, the Army recently hit on a simple energy saver. In the past several months, it began covering its tents in Iraq and Afghanistan with a 2-inch layer of hard foam. The fuel-saving results have been remarkable. When the Army did a test on two identical tents in sweltering Fort Irwin, Calif., the interior of a tent that wasn't foamed—and this is the case with the vast majority of tents in Iraq and Afghanistan, where temperatures often soar above 110 degrees—reached a temperature of 125 degrees inside, while the insulated tent remained 85 degrees. "It just gives you a very good sense of what this can do," says Bollinger. And more important, what it means is that the fuel required to power the generators can decrease, "because you don't need as many AC units or heaters to be running to get the tent to a comfortable temperature."
And that has far greater security implications, say senior military officials. The Army did some math and learned that a 1 percent reduction in its fuel consumption in war zones results in 6,444 fewer soldiers in convoys. And fewer convoys, officials add, mean fewer casualties. "That's all part of the energy equation. You can't be a strong expeditionary force if you're tied to a giant fuel umbilical cord," says Bollinger. "And that's what we're trying to do—cut the cord."
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