In the heat of battle, troops may not have time to think about making the most energy-efficient moves. That's where Sharon Burke comes in.
From her office wedged within one of the innermost rings of the Pentagon, the soft-spoken 44-year-old security analyst is tasked with weaving energy considerations into the Defense Department's war-fighting strategy. DOD officials say the push is about improving capability and saving lives lost accompanying fuel through war zones, not making environmental strides.
Burke, however, sees the two areas as linked. "The department needs to cut its energy use for its own reasons -- for the way we do business, for the ability to protect the country, and cutting energy use for climate change is part of that," she said in an interview with ClimateWire.
Burke is the Pentagon's first director of operational energy plans and programs, or, as she called herself during her first public appearance on the job last month -- the "dope," riffing off her DOEEP acronym.
The Senate confirmed Burke to the job in June, after she came under initial fire from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R) for her apparent support of a 2007 law that bars federal agencies from buying alternative fuels that have higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels (ClimateWire, March 25).
The energy security expert grew up on tales of her father's Marine Corps service and has spent most of her adult life bouncing between State Department, DOD and think tank jobs.
In her newest role, Burke sees her responsibility as split into three camps: shrinking energy needs in current operations, better incorporating fuel efficiency criteria into decisions about what equipment to buy, and factoring energy into DOD's overall war-fighter fabric.
Achieving those goals could make a sizable dent in the carbon footprint of DOD.
Consider the "operational" energy required to perform tasks like ferrying gas from Pakistan through the Hindu Kush and keep legions of generators humming at forward operating bases. Such activities amount to some 70 percent of all energy used by the Department of Defense. And DOD racks up a hefty energy bill as the nation's single largest energy consumer -- using more than 1 percent of the nation's total.
New war lines, new energy lines
Burke has until December 21 to present Congress with a blueprint for how she will lighten that DOD fuel load. For a department that has never before looked at operational energy as its own entity and is notoriously splintered with its own specific plans and obstacles for each service, this will be a significant undertaking.
Her office walls are bare -- save for a DOD organizational chart -- perhaps underscoring the challenge of developing a crosscutting strategy for the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Still, Burke says that the bureaucracy in the department is not what she sees as her greatest obstacle. "It's not so much that I see a roof full of stovepipes that need to be knocked down." Her office will be acting as "an integrator and a coordinator and have an oversight function," she said.
The initial hurdle, according to Burke, is defining the challenge and getting more detailed information on which missions, bases and equipment are most responsible for running up the combat fuel tally.
"You know, they've never separated out operational energy as a concern. The very act of standing up in office and pushing people into those conversations or pulling them -- inviting them into it -- has been really important," she said.
Two years ago, the Defense Science Board Task Force on DOD Energy Strategy blasted DOD for failing to achieve better energy savings in combat zones and pointed to the lack of senior leadership within DOD on the issue as a central cause. Congress tried to fill that void in the fiscal 2009 Defense Authorization Act by creating the DOEPP position.
As the first person to hold the job, Burke said she is cautious about keeping her goals realistic and making sure she isn't driven by her inbox to move too quickly.
"It's not every day in the Pentagon you have a chance to establish a whole new organization," she said. But at the same time, she wants to move fast enough to make sure that future strategies, war games and funding reflect the need to move toward a more fuel-efficient future.
DOD's energy landscape is changing, she said. "What is new is how energy-intense our military is, and the kinds of wars we are in where we are not always going to be behind our front lines. The lines are everywhere," she said.
Contracting: ripe for improvement
Burke fancies herself a matchmaker -- identifying needs and marrying them up with possible energy solutions.
In the short term, she said, her plans to "unleash troops from the tether of fuel" won't come from sending a deluge of prototypes of smart microgrids and solar-paneled tents to the front lines.
Instead, Burke said she plans to take stock of proven, off-the-shelf technologies to save on fuel and energy needs and lighten air loads.
"I know it's not as satisfying as being able to say we are going to put an entirely new thing in theater and it will change everything," she said. "I hope that's possible, but right now I think we need to focus on what we know we can do right now, and that will actually add up to quite a bit," she said.
Initial fixes, she said, could range from engine upgrades to material upgrades or changes to the body of a system or its wheels. As gear, weapons and Humvees cycle back to the depot to be refitted and refurbished, that's an opportunity to retrofit equipment with efficiency upgrades, she said.
Dan Nolan, the founder and CEO of Sabot 6, a defense consulting group, said a specific area that could use some of Burke's attention would be creating financial incentives for contractors to be more energy-efficient. Nolan was part of the team that put DOD's Power Surety Task Force together -- the group that pushed the Army to insulate more than 6 million square feet of tents in Iraq and Afghanistan with spray-on foam, saving $1.5 million a day in fuel savings, according to Army numbers.
Contractors perform a lot of DOD's long-term support work in the field. If they were required to buy their own fuel within their contracts and were told they could keep any savings, that could motivate them to slim down their energy needs, he said. Such changes could be where the "greatest impact could happen in the shortest amount of time," he said.
'Climate change will shape our future'
From her previous perch as a senior fellow and then vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for a New American Security, Burke helped shape research focused on the intersection of security threats and energy issues.
She started grappling with security issues in the Pentagon years ago. Early in her career, she served as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Pentagon, getting to know the building and serving in its different offices for two years. Since then, she has hopscotched through civil service and political appointee jobs at the State Department and Defense Department and also worked at Third Way, a progressive think tank, where she advised candidates and members of Congress on national security issues.
Burke has championed ramping up consideration of climate change and energy considerations into national security strategy.
"National security capabilities can take decades to build," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year. "We need to design the ideas and equipment and recruit and train the personnel to protect and defend the nation 10 to 40 years in the future, and it is clear that climate change will shape our future," she said (E&E Daily, March 22).
Written into Burke's job description is the requirement that she review the DOD budget and report to Congress if it gives energy considerations short shrift. Since her overarching energy plan has not been written yet, Burke and her current staff of three are combing the fiscal 2012 budget to make sure it provides enough funds for each service's individual energy goals.
While Burke is aware that her job is to lead from the top in energy savings, she said pulling DOD toward better fuel management and energy innovation is not just a matter of laying out targets.
"If you say we are going to cut operational energy use by X percent, well, it's a war. It's not a fixed installation that stays in one place and has certain duty cycles. It's just you either are going to be putting constraints on our soldiers and Marines in the field that would make it difficult to do their jobs, or you would be asking them to ignore you," she said.
Still, that does not mean there should be no evaluative measures, she cautioned. Moreover, Congress required that she come up with some. "We do need to have metrics that measure success, absolutely, but I just don't want to throw spaghetti metrics up on the wall and hope they stick," she said.
In her December plan, she said, she will be laying out requirements to track where energy gets used in the field. Armed with those numbers from the different services, she said, the Pentagon can be better poised to tackle the problem.
"Right now, I know the Army is getting ready to field some monitoring operationally," she said, but she declined to discuss the details of that initiative saying they are "pre-decisional."
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.