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 August 2007 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Energy Security: Impact on the War on Terror

August 2007

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

The crucial link between national security and energy has been the subject of much debate and several blue-ribbon studies in recent months. There is a growing consensus that the United States has to find ways to bring along alternative and renewable sources of energy for both the military and the nation.

Following on last month’s perspective, I thought I would highlight the poignant discussions on energy and security that took place at the 2007 Joint Services Environmental Management conference in Columbus, Ohio.

Of particular note were remarks by R. James Woolsey Jr., foreign policy specialist and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Woolsey pointed out that our reliance on imported petroleum and on the electric grid represent huge vulnerabilities that we need to begin to address sooner rather than later.

He reminded us that the United States spends $1 billion a day to buy oil. Such a staggering amount of treasure that we allocate to foreign oil raises serious questions about who ultimately benefits in the enormously lucrative oil market. Woolsey urged us to ponder the uncomfortable thought that the United States could be funding both sides of the war on terror — our side and theirs.

Further, our critical dependence — and that of other developed and rapidly developing nations — on imported oil has made it a strategic commodity.

Woolsey’s proposed solution to the problem offers, as its central feature, the notion that oil should cease to exist as a strategic commodity. To achieve this goal, the nation would have to pursue a portfolio of technologies and approaches to energy conservation and fuel efficiency, some of which are near at hand.

He emphasized three areas: vehicles, the electric grid and alternative energy sources.

For vehicles, he proposes a move to “plug-in” hybrid vehicles. Since most folks drive less than 40 miles per day, most of their driving would be on battery power. Their recharging would be at night during off-peak hours. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have batteries that can be recharged by connecting a plug to an electrical power source. Plug-in hybrids have characteristics of both conventional hybrid electric vehicles and of battery electric vehicles. While they usually are passenger vehicles, they can also be commercial passenger vans, utility trucks, school buses, scooters and military vehicles. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are sometimes called grid-connected hybrids or gas-optional hybrids.

Plug-in hybrids use no fossil fuel during their all-electric range to the extent that their batteries are charged from renewable energy sources. It is encouraging news that Toyota and General Motors have announced their intention to mass produce plug-in hybrid automobiles. Currently, conversion kits are available for hybrids such as the Toyota Prius. The kits extend their electric-only range and add plug-in charging.

Plug-in hybrids achieve well above 100 miles a gallon fuel efficiency — and perhaps even much more depending on the range driven each day. But Woolsey also adds that if millions of Americans begin driving plug-in hybrids, they would shift the demand from petroleum to the electric grid — and that is a significant point.

So it would be imperative for the nation to make the electric grid more robust, resilient, efficient and diversified. Improvements are needed in transmission capability, efficiency of coal-burning plants, more nuclear power and moves to renewable sources.

The discussion also underscores issues of great concern to the Defense Department — access to liquid sources of energy for mobility, the costs and efficiency of fixed installations, and the strategic security implications of obtaining imported petroleum.

Access to our current forms of energy — for both military and civilian transportation — is a security challenge in itself.

Military transportation must eventually shift its demand to sources not dependent on imported petroleum. Keep in mind that mobility constitutes 74 percent of the Defense Department’s energy use.

Military infrastructure, both on the battlefield and at permanent bases, needs more efficient ways to provide installation energy.

Both the military and the civilian worlds are co-dependent in their use of the same technologies for energy. Advances and improvements in one quickly affects the other.

But they also compete in the sense that they both depend on diminishing and increasingly expensive petroleum supplies. There are two basic divisions here: fuel for fixed generation and fuel for mobility/transportation.

For mobility the answer could be in renewable fuels such as cellulosic ethanol. There are other possibilities such as coal gasification, an approach the Air Force is exploring, although there are concerns about carbon emissions.

For fixed energy generation, the wide-ranging portfolio of renewables includes wind, geothermal, solar, ocean waves and other water flow sources. Some other fuels like nuclear fusion seem to be well into the future so they are not available for near term or as a transition energy source, but fission is available, well-developed, and environmentally friendly. One other interesting approach is the research currently underway in low energy nuclear reactions. Finally, as we develop and diversify the grid, we need to vastly increase the efficiency with which fixed installations use energy.

Liquid fuels will be around for quite awhile for certain applications — aviation and long haul transportation to name just two. One possibility could be to shift transportation demand to other energy sources where we can, such as plug-in hybrids. This should be coupled with a move to alternative renewable sources for liquid fuels. At the same time, the electric grid has to be strengthened.

Next month, I will focus on describing some specifics of these technologies.

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