The U.S. Air Force Has a New Energy Plan…Do You?

new air force energy strategic planThe U.S. military has been pushing itself aggressively to develop new future energy and resource conservation strategies, and the new U.S. Air Force Energy Strategic Plan underscores just how important a similar plan is for businesses that want to stay competitive in a world of shrinking resources.

In particular, the Air Force energy plan demonstrates that even in cases where an immense budget for fuel is available, all budgets are finite, and the issue is not one of simply providing a passive consumer market for energy producers. What is emerging is a more complex scenario under which businesses generate their own energy on site and/or interact with energy producers to ensure a more nimble, cost-effective and secure approach.

The Air Force and renewable energy

The new plan builds on a number of renewable energy initiatives undertaken by the Air Force during both the Bush and Obama administrations, such as installing utility scale solar arrays on its bases, partnering with SolarCity to install rooftop solar arrays and working with the private sector to develop new high efficiency solar technology.

The Air Force has also been taking advantage of on site geothermal resources, demonstrating the high-performance capabilities of jet biofuel through its Thunderbirds precision flight team, and funding next-generation biofuels research.

Resource recovery and supplier/consumer interaction is also an emerging Air Force strategy for cutting costs and creating a revenue stream, as illustrated by a massive (and growing) biomass and food recycling project at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. Most of the resulting soil amendment is used on the base, including a project to preserve habitat for the endangered checkerspot butterfly, and some is sold offsite.

The new Air Force Energy Strategic Plan

For the military in particular, the notorious “sequester” budget cuts have ramped up the need to find more economical and fiscally stable fuel sources, and geopolitical concerns add another layer of complication to conventional fuels.

On  a more basic level, though, the Energy Plan is coming from a place familiar to us all: uncontrollable price spikes and a long term upward trend in conventional energy prices are can stress even the most liberal fuel budgets.

Another familiar source of pressure is the intense proliferation of energy-consuming devices into more and more areas that were formerly accomplished by food-fueled humans.

With that in mind, the new Energy Plan notes that energy is a “double-edged sword” that creates dependencies and vulnerabilities:

“Energy is critical for the U.S. military’s core national defense mission, yet it is simultaneously a vulnerability to the military’s ability to confront 21st century challenges that are global and increasingly more complex…Transforming the way we use energy – including investing in innovation, and building an energy secure force—is critical to ensuring the  Air Force is equipped to sustain the mission priorities of today while planning for the challenges of the future.”

The Energy Plan also takes into account the importance of reducing energy use as part of a broader greenhouse gas management strategy, and it takes a next-level approach by tying energy conservation directly to water resource conservation:

“Our approach to energy also includes reducing our consumption of water, as the two are inextricably tied. Virtually every source of electricity—whether from coal, natural gas, nuclear, biofuels or even concentrated solar—requires water in some manner…By reducing the Air Force’s demand for energy, it is also reducing the demand for water.”

Elements of a more secure energy future

The Energy Plan outlines four elements of energy security that could easily apply to any business: Reduce Demand, Assure Supply, Foster an Energy Aware Culture and Improve Resiliency.

The first three are self-explanatory, and the “Improve Resiliency” element should be familiar ground to any business that has conducted a thorough emergency planning review, including supply chain and human resources (FEMA’s “Waffle House Test” illustrates how a good emergency plan can enable a company to bounce back quickly from natural disasters while others in the same area fail).

One key to resiliency for the Air Force will be an increase in the production of on-site renewable energy along with advanced energy storage capabilities, a goal that closely parallels Apple’s data center strategy.

A relatively brief overview of the plan is available on Google Docs, and it’s well worth a read, because it also pays a great deal of attention to detailing the management and communications structure that will be needed to ensure that the new policies make it off the paper and into practice.

The plan also underscores the importance of engaging in foundational research and development to ensure future progress, establishing best practices leadership areas of strength, and identifying best practice role models to follow in other areas.

In regard to best practices, the Obama Administration has been developing more resources for businesses including a comprehensive set of modeling platforms such as the Better Buildings Initiative for energy efficiency upgrades and the Workplace Charging Challenge for electric vehicle charging stations.

An Air Force energy plan for everyone

Above all the Energy Plan notes that “energy management is a dynamic process,” which means that the most effective plan over the longer term is one that serves as an “adaptive framework” for meeting future goals.

Over and above its application to the business world, that approach could just as easily apply to any household.

[Image: Air Force Thunderbirds by Alaskan Dude]

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

4 responses

  1. The Air Force’s brilliant lead in solar power is best exemplified by Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. There the service was an accessory to the installation of a $100 million 140-acre solar farm in 2007 that is on track to save the base $24 million in electricity costs over the 20-year lifespan of the hardware, land lease, and PPA. Wait–that’s a net loss of $76 million you say! Correct, but it’s the US taxpayers and Nevada Power customers that are taking the loss, not the Air Force. Pretty good business plan. The Navy liked it so much, it hired the same contractor to put in the same hardware (half Chinese Suntech panels, BTW) at its base in China Lake, CA in 2012. But projected savings there are only $13 million over 20 years. Unfortunately, this kind of negative payback is typical for all the large and small solar installations being done on military bases across the country. To ice the cake, neither solar farm has the transfer switches and infrastructure needed to operate if the grid goes down, so neither provide a single watt of increased energy security. Not one military solar or wind project so far completed can be justified from a business case or national security case. When the President told the military leaders he wanted the military to install alternative energy real bad, they obeyed and installed it real bad. The endless printing of new strategy documents that parrot politically-correct narratives without adding an inch of intellectual depth is just part and parcel of the sycophantic politics of the current crop of senior military leadership.

    1. Cliff, I love you man but where are you getting your information? The Nellis solar array was built under a power purchase agreement, which is a common financing mechanism for conventional power plants, too. I don’t see where the loss is. A loss would be something like the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island in New York State, which ratepayers are still paying for even though it never went into service.

      As far as I know the Nellis array is working just fine and as you say, it is saving Nellis about $1 million annually off its electricity bill.

      Readers, if you’re interested in more details the EPA has a pretty thorough fact sheet on the project, including information on the way it was financed (EPA is involved because the array was built partly on a former landfill):

      1. Tina, please stop leading your readers astray, both here and at CleanTechnica where you’ve banned me from posting because you don’t like to be contradicted with facts.

        Here’s the Air Force’s own brief on the project. Michelle R. Price. “Nellis AFB Solar Power System & Renewable Energy,” n.d.

        Per this brief, the capital cost was “over $100M” but paid for by federal taxpayers (“55-65%) and Nevada RECs (“35-45%”). The Air Force (federal taxpayers) also donated the land for free for 20-years to make the project viable. The Air Force’s PPA is only a sliver of the money that changed hands in this boondogle.

        The operations and maintenance contract is for $11M a year for the 20-year land-leases/PPAs. The contracts for O&M for both China Lake and Nellis have changed hands several times, even passing through a Spanish subsidiary Fotowatio, and are now handled by SolarStar NAFB and SolarStar California.

        Now I ask, based on these reliable facts from the Air Force itself, How is such a waste of taxpayer money for a negative return on investment good for national security? How is increasing the military’s dependence upon contractors for essential services good for energy or national security? How is the proven instability in the O&M contracts, and even foreign holding company ownership of them good for national security? When these O&M firms file for chapter 11 and walk before 20 years is up because they didn’t budget for the decommission costs of 75,000 burned out solar panels, where will that leave the Navy, the Air Force and the US taxpayer?

        Solar power in the U.S. is currently subsidized at $59.60 for the same energy output as is contained in a barrel of diesel, compared to oil and gas which are subsidized at 45 cents per barrel. In 2010 alternative energy received subsidies totalling $14.7 billion compared to oil and gas subsidies totaling $2.82 billion, but delivered only 4.1% of the nation’s energy compared to 36.8% from oil and gas.

        Is this push for solar about energy security or national security? No, it’s about political paybacks and vote-buying at taxpayer expense and to the detriment of national and energy security. The Air Force and Navy are being used as accessories to graft and corruption on the same scale as Solyndra.

  2. Must be cloudy in the Nevada desert today–the 14MW Nellis solar farm peaked at only 8.2 MW output. Well the military should be able to make due with less power on cloudy days. It’s not like national security is at stake.

    I note that the lifetime capacity factor has now declined from a high of 26% to 23.5%. Their real-time capacity factor must be even lower to be dragging the lifetime average down. Click here to watch the live performance and see what your forcibly redirected income is doing today BTW, this system was promised to deliver 15MW when it was contracted, but the government just let that failure to deliver pass. It’s not like they were spending their money.

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