As the Air Force seeks to realize both its own and federally mandated energy efficiency goals, its top energy official is pressing for better ways to measure progress.
Complying with the goals set forth by the government and striving to meet the goals the service sets for itself are something to be proud of, said Erin Conaton, the undersecretary of the Air Force. But measuring the pace of improvement needs more work.
"We need ways of measuring progress as we go -- not just in aggregate terms after the fact," Conaton said yesterday at an Air Force energy forum in Washington, D.C., pointing to that issue as one of her top priorities. Conaton, who was only confirmed to her job a couple of months ago, is charged with helping the service achieve the ambitious energy goals the Air Force laid out in December.
That includes meeting half of the its aircraft jet fuel needs with alternative fuels by 2016 and slashing Air Force energy use by 10 percent within five years. Moreover, the Air Force plan calls for a broad cultural shift wherein new recruits and senior leadership alike would consider energy parameters in everything they do.
The stakes are high. The Air Force is currently the federal government's top energy consumer, requiring 2.5 billion gallons of fuel each year to power its operations. Last year, the Air Force ran up a bill of $6.7 billion to meet its energy needs, with 17 percent of those funds supporting facilities and operations. And unchecked, those numbers are only expected to rise.
Energy needs at military installations, which account for about 40 percent of the Defense Department's greenhouse gas emissions, are expected to balloon as thousands of troops return to home bases from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For now, however, the Defense Department's heavy dependence on fossil fuels in the field puts troops at risk. In June 2008 alone, 44 trucks and 220,000 gallons of fuel were lost due to attacks or other mishaps while attempting to deliver fuel to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the Defense Department reported to the Government Accountability Office.
Bean counters hope to find more fruit
But even if the Air Force were able to turn off more of its lights, from a cost perspective it wouldn't be enough to make a substantial difference, experts say. Though the Air Force curbed its energy use 11 percent between 2001 and 2007, it was unable to keep pace with energy prices, which rose 49 percent, said Jeffrey Marqusee, the director of the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program and the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program for DOD.
Reducing use and improving efficiency are part of the solution, but investing in large-scale renewable energy projects alongside more alternative fuels will be crucial to reducing the Air Force's carbon footprint and safeguarding the military against the vulnerability of the national power grid, defense experts emphasized yesterday.
One way to gauge how the Air Force is lightening its installation load would be to employ more smart technology, suggested John Conger, the assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment. "We need to think in terms of new systems where everything can be tracked together and you can measure it centrally," he said.
While Conger praised the force its successes and for crafting incentives for its individual bases to achieve more energy-efficient practices, but he, alongside administration officials, still called for greater strides in data collection.
"I think it will pay back in helping to identify the low-hanging fruit and monitoring the subsequent efficacy of energy efforts," said Steven Koonin, the undersecretary for science at the Energy Department. "How can you manage what you haven't measured?" echoed Conger.
Cracking the $65 a gallon barrier
One way to help reduce the fuel burden would be to ground more flights -- trading in some of the training flights in favor of simulations, Conaton told reporters yesterday. By replacing 19 exercises with simulations in recent years, the Air Force has saved some $30 million already, according to service numbers. But scaling up such decisions would have to be weighed carefully against ensuring "pilots have the capability and are ready to fly the mission on day one," she said. Retooling old engines might be another part of the solution, she said.
But on a larger scale, the Air Force is focusing much of its attention on leveraging the Air Force's buying power to bring alternative fuels to market. While the Air Force flew its first test flight of a military aircraft powered by a biofuel-jet fuel blend in March and plans to certify all its aircraft to run on alternative fuels by 2012, the fuel needs to be there -- and cost effective -- in order to get into aircraft tanks.
Right now, cost proves a huge barrier to tapping alternative fuels. Standard jet fuel for military aircraft has a price tag between $3.50 and $4 a gallon, while the fuel purchased for that March test, using an A-10C Thunderbird II, cost $65 a gallon. The service hopes to work with the Navy, other federal agencies and commercial interests to lower that cost. "We need a cost-effective large-scale industrial response to allow us to buy the synthetic fuels that we need," Conaton said.
But perhaps the most difficult challenge, said Conaton, the former staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, will be transforming the culture of a force used to having unlimited fuel or power anywhere, anytime.