Gauging energy alternatives … military style

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Increased DoD [Department of Defense] renewable fuel use helps advance U.S. strategic energy security interests, achieve the [armed forces] goals, and gains some limited military utility, such as lower freeze points, cleaner combustion, and potential for designer fuels. At present, these [alternative] fuels command a price premium, but it is anticipated to decline significantly as the market develops over the next decade. Despite this reduced premium, the military’s renewable fuel goals could still impose $2.2 billion in additional estimated annual fuel costs by 2020.” –from a new DoD study regarding renewable fuel use by the U.S. military’s aviation, maritime and ground transportation fleets

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So, if you can slog your way through a new 248-page review of renewable fuel opportunities for the U.S. military, you’ll find that the conclusions don’t differ all that much from the trucking industry’s experience: namely that, while there are a range of benefits to be had, the exorbitant costs of renewable fuels in comparison to gasoline and diesel still makes them a very tough sell, especially in these tight fiscal times.

Published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) under the singularly unwieldy title of Opportunities for DoD Use of Alternative and Renewable Fuels: FY10 NDAA Section 334 Congressional Study, with research and analysis provided by the energy and environment group within consulting firm LMI, the report takes a very blunt (if overly wordy) look at the possible benefits and current pitfalls offered by renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.

First, on the positive side, there’s much wider availability of such fuels than ever before. The supply of ethanol in the U.S. increased from less than a billion gallons consumed in the early 1980s to more than 10 billion gallons in 2009. Similarly, consumption of biodiesel in the early part of this decade was approximately 10 million gallons and has increased thirty-fold to more than 330 million gallons by 2009, the DoD noted.

However, that’s still note enough to meet the military’s ongoing fuel demands. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) purchased nearly 129 million barrels of petroleum in fiscal year 2009 to feed the U.S, military’s fuel needs – some 92% of all the fuel used by the federal government and representing 1.9% of the total petroleum consumed by the U.S. in 2009.

[The U.S. military is also trying to reduce fuel demand as well by switching to new forms of “energy support” for its operations, especially combat forces. Marine Corps units in particular are currently putting such alternatives through their paces in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.]

As a result of that huge fuel demand, the DoD said it would require more than 40% of the total projected U.S. renewable fuel supply – regardless of fuel type – by 2020, just to meet the military’s stated goal to use some 745 million gallons (which equates to a measly 14% of its total fuel supply) of renewable fuels to power jet aircraft, trucks, and other equipment.

And, as noted above, there’s a big price tag associated with such a switch, too; on the order of an additional $865 million by 2015 and $2.2 billion in estimated annual fuel costs by 2020 – represents a 10% to 15% increase over the cost of conventional petroleum fuels.

“Although DoD’s renewable fuel consumption continues to grow, it has been limited to supplanting the use of petroleum in non-tactical vehicles (NTVs), primarily with ethanol and biodiesel,” the report noted.

“DoD’s largest opportunity for renewable fuel use is in its tactical systems and weapons platforms, which constitutes 90% of its petroleum fuel demand. These systems are replaced on a generational scale, so renewable fuels used in these systems must conform to existing fuel specifications and performance requirements,” the study added.

[Imagine, though, the alternative-power opportunities provided by the next generation of combat vehicles. For example, take a look at a new unmanned vehicle developed by Lockheed Martin designed to carry heavy loads for soldiers in combat zones.]

However, prior to use in tactical systems, renewable fuels must be qualified, and weapon platforms certified, to ensure the fuel does not compromise mission performance or safety. “Also, because of DoD efforts to simplify fuel logistics through the use of a single battlefield fuel (known by the acronym JP-8), proposed renewable fuels that require separate supply chains or are incompatible with existing infrastructure may face military doctrinal challenges,” the report pointed out

Yet, with all of that being said, the report concluded that renewable fuels also offer the means to reduce U.S. force dependence on petroleum fuels.

“For this reason, DoD has been exploring their use in its tactical applications,” the study stressed. “So far, they [the military] have determined that renewable fuels blended with conventional petroleum that meet military diesel and jet fuel specifications will not require separate infrastructure or pose maintenance risks to existing assets.”

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