Energy: Should the Military Be Going Green? RAND Isn’t So Sure

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While American society has bickered on climate and energy, the White House has dithered and Congress has been deadlocked, the U.S. military has been busy going green. The Pentagon has spent some $300 million in economic stimulus financing and research money to improve the military’s energy efficiency and develop alternative fuels. The Air Force, which has led the way on alternative fuels, wants to be prepared by 2016 to acquire enough alternative fuel to make up 50% of its domestic requirements for aviation fuel. In October 2009 Navy Secretary Ray Mabus—as green as green can come—committed the Navy to ensure that at least 50% of the energy it consumes by 2020 come from alternative sources. You can call it “patriotic green“—the framing of the climate and energy challenge as a national security question, with the armed forces looking to reduce their dependence on foreign oil (often from countries aligned against U.S. interests) and shrink long and vulnerable energy supply lines. It’s the sort of policy that even climate skeptics wouldn’t oppose—if only because criticism of the military is almost nonexistent in the U.S. today.

But the friendly researchers at the RAND Corporation—the people who brought us mutually assured destruction theory—aren’t so sure that the military is getting its money worth. In a study released today—download a PDF here—RAND researchers argue that the U.S. would receive no meaningful military benefit from increased use of alternative fuels like biofuels for its jets, ships and weapon systems. The study’s authors argue that alternative fuels now are still too expensive and the science around them too uncertain to be very useful to the military for at least another decade. Instead of the algae biofuel and other experimental biofuels that have captured the attention of the Navy and Air Force in particular, the RAND study recommends that the military should focus first and foremost on energy efficiency. As James Bartis, the lead author of the study, said in an accompanying statement:

To realize the national benefits of alternative fuels, the military needs to reassess where it is placing its emphasis in both fuel testing and technology development. Too much emphasis is focused on seed-derived oils that displace food production, have very limited production potential and may cause greenhouse gas emissions well above those of conventional petroleum fuels.

The results will rustle feathers in Washington and beyond. The study, which came out of a directive in the 2009 Defense Authorization Act calling for review of alternative fuels in the military, actually found that Fischer-Tropsch (FP) fuels actually hold the most promise for the Department of Defense in the near-term—even though the FP process right now is most often used to create liquid fuels from coal, which makes for an overall carbon-intensive process. (The RAND study does assume that the carbon emissions from the coal-derived FT process could be captured and sequestered, however, though that’s not commercially viable yet.) But biofuels from animal fats, vegetable oils and algae are all dismissed as being too limited in supply, requiring too much land for development or are simply too early in the research and development process to be considered viable. Nuclear, solar and other renewables could be useful, but electricity plays a relatively small part in the fuels the military needs. And while it might be nice to develop alternative sources of fuels that can be deployed at the front lines and with the troops, instead of depending on a long fossil-fueled supply line, the RAND study argues that such a transformation isn’t feasible:

In short, traditional systems, in which fuel is produced outside the theater and then shipped in, continue to be the most practical in terms of military utility.

The RAND study was sharply criticized, however, by the very people it was written for: the U.S. military. Thomas Hicks, the deputy assistant secretary of energy for the Navy, told Tom Zeller Jr. of the New York Times:

Unfortunately, we were not engaged by the authors of this report. We don’t believe they adequately engaged the market. This is not up to RAND’s standards.

Hicks and other unhappy with the report noted that the military’s research and deployment work on alternative fuels was meant to have a social benefit that went well beyond the armed forces, one that would help the U.S. move beyond oil for both climate and geopolitical reasons. A greener military won’t make of a direct difference for the U.S.—for all the fuel our tanks, ships and jets use, it accounts for less than 2% of the 19 million barrels of petroleum the country as a whole uses daily. But the military has long been a sort of first-wave innovator for the U.S.—microchips, aeronautics and even the Internet all either came from defense research or benefited from generous early-stage deployment that would have been impossible in the private sector. (The military-industrial complex—working for you!) There’s reason to hope that the military could perform the same role for clean energy, as even the RAND report notes:

Nevertheless, despite the absence of a specific military benefit, there are nationally important benefits to be gained from the use of alternative fuels. If the Department of Defense were to encourage early production experience, government decisionmakers, technology developers, and investors would obtain important information about the technical, financial, and environmental performance of various alternative fuel options. If favorable, that information could lead to a commercial alternative-fuels industry producing strategically significant amounts of fuel in the United States. Once established, a large, commercially competitive alternative fuel industry in the United States and abroad would weaken the ability of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to assert its cartel power. Lower world oil prices would yield economic benefits to all fuel users—civilian and military alike. Lower prices would also decrease the incomes of “rogue” oil producers, and thereby likely decrease financial support to large terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hizballah.

If the military’s green R&D program really can help speed along larger domestic innovation, that might still be money well spent—even if you’re not likely to see the U.S.S. Prius any time soon. Still, with even the usually sacrosanct Pentagon feeling the pressure to control its spending, the RAND report will almost certainly arm conservatives with a hit list for budget cuts. At the very least, the military’s experiment with sustainability has already taught us one lesson: it’s not easy going green.