March 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The military is the largest consumer of energy in the public sector, consuming 5 billion gallons of fuel in 2010.  Access is not really the issue even in times of tight supply.  But it is incumbent on the military to reduce its reliance on fuel while at the same time not sacrificing operational effectiveness.  This applies to all forms of energy, not just fuel for transport, although that is the one with the greatest imperative. 

During the Iraq war there was great deal of public angst with the price of fuel for the war effort, and many in the supply chain got blamed.  The fact is that a captain in a forward emplacement is not worrying about the price when he or she needs fuel urgently.  The monetary cost aside, the human cost of such delivery is substantial.  In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2007 an estimated 3000 military and civilian support personnel were killed or wounded while transporting fuel or water.  Reduction in fuel usage, substitution with more benign alternatives, local sourcing of energy and water, these all ought to be priority strategies for the military today.

 The time was never more right than now to innovate in reducing cost of energy in the military.  The budgetary toll will be heavy this year once the congressional squabbling is over.  One war has wound down and another on the way to exit.  The next war must be supported by low energy methodology running the gamut of lighter vehicles (fits well with the smaller lighter army motif in vogue today), fuel replacement to minimize high risk convoys of diesel and gasoline, off grid distributed power with renewable energy supported by micro grids, desalination of saline ground water to minimize water transport, and electric vehicles when feasible, because distributed power is lot easier than distributed fuel generation.

Semi-permanent bases domestically and abroad could even invest in distributed fuel production.  If natural gas were to be readily available, small footprint production of a drop-in fuel would not be out of the question.  Given this possibility, the military ought to fund such developments rather than the massive coal and gas to liquids projects that it has been wont to do.  In any case, small scale distributed power in the form of mini-nuclear (what would be more secure than a military base?), wind and solar, combined with a micro-grid could power entire bases off the grid.  This not only will give the green feel, but also would render the base relatively impervious to weather or sabotage related grid outages.  Certainly in forward locations, the solar option would apply.  In some foreign locations the base could consider providing surplus power to the neighbouring townships and as a result buy goodwill which is sometimes hard to come by for US bases.

Base vehicles are uniquely suited to fuel switch over.  This is because infrastructure support for refuelling is straightforward.  Furthermore, in the example of CNG and LNG substitution of diesel and gasoline, where feasible the engines ought to be modified to take advantage of the high octane rating of methane (125 as compared to 87 for gasoline).  High compression engines enabled by the high octane number will deliver more power and distance for less fuel.  Ultimately, civilian versions of these vehicles could capture consumer imagination.  We would in effect have a reincarnation of Hummer as a HEAT (High Efficiency All Terrain) vehicle.  Bring  the HEAT!

The same goes for electric vehicles.  Again, distributed electricity is easier than distributed liquid fuel and an electric vehicle delivers 60% more miles per unit of energy consumed.  Not only will imported oil be substituted for, but less energy will be used.  Only certain vehicles may be suited to electrification, but any gains would also have the virtue of symbolism. 

Fresh water transport to front lines does not get much press but is a tractable objective for reduction.  The shale gas industry will be learning to deal with low cost water sourcing and treatment.  These advances could be used to advantage by the military.  Salt water aquifers are fairly ubiquitous, and the shallower they are the less salty.  The Defence Department ought to consider sponsoring developments of small footprint desalination, especially targeting the types of salt water anticipated in theatres of action.  In foreign locations, the use of otherwise useless brackish water rather than fresh would also have a public relations ring to it.

Every President in the last decade or so, no matter from which side of the aisle, has drawn that bright line between energy security and national security.  President Bush, a champion of oil and a onetime owner of oil interests, famously complained about our “addiction to oil”.  President Obama recently said “America’s dependence on oil is one of the most serious threats that our nation has faced”.  That sounds like a national security statement.  So, equating national security to energy security and thence to reduction of imported oil will not be disputed by many.

Vikram Rao, Executive Director


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