Fighting words

June 4, 2009
Energy Expert Peter Garforth explores energy productivity from a military perspective.

In May, I was privileged to participate in dialogue between industry and the U.S. Air Force over the challenges of managing complex organizations for maximum energy productivity. This meeting gave me an opportunity to reflect on the importance of energy productivity from a somewhat different point of view, and to see how completely different organizations can learn valuable energy lessons from each other.

When effective energy supply is looked at through the lens of being essential to fulfill a military mission, it puts a lot of priorities in sharp focus. Managing the multiple aspects of supply security and energy prioritization , as well as cost and the environment, can mean the difference between mission success and failure. This is no less true for industry.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a subtle but distinct difference between the attitudes of military organizations and their industrial and municipal counterparts when it comes to conservation of resources, including energy supplies. For centuries, the military has had to live with the reality that everything they take to the theater of operations must be hauled there or sourced on the spot, ideally sustainably. From the earliest days of warfare, supply lines have been among the most vulnerable links in the chain.


In the theater itself, allocation of scarce resources between activities directly related to the mission and to the comfort of the forces becomes a daily challenge. It’s probably no accident that some of the most effective energy management results within the U.S. Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) and similar initiatives come from the military.

Rapid changes in activity level, demanded of any military before and during deployment, bring challenges into the spotlight, and can encourage energy innovation and speedy management decisions. They also highlight the importance of rigorously following the priorities of the loading order we have discussed so often in this column: the highest priority is energy efficiency, the next is to maximize heat recovery and cogeneration, followed by the effective deployment of renewable energy sources, and completed with effective teaming with the current energy networks to optimize the value of investments.

A great example came from the apparently relatively mundane need to air-condition forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mundane, that is, until we remember that most structures are tents, and that fuel for generators is rapidly becoming the second highest energy need. This led to rapid development and deployment of insulated tents, along with reinvigorated efforts to maximize equipment efficiency and seek renewable electricity sources.

Fueling ground transportation and aviation is by far the largest energy need for today’s forces. Like everyone else, the military is subject to the vagaries of world oil prices, and the day-to-day stresses of the global oil supply structure. Unlike everyone else, the need to transport vast quantities of petroleum products to difficult forward locations produces massive logistical challenges and supply chain vulnerability. In these circumstances, the premium attached to effective, but efficient, vehicles and airplanes is immense. Equally important is the ability to have energy systems that are fuel-flexible and can handle differing fuel grades and types, including renewable sources. The breadth and depth of the innovative research in potential renewable transport and aviation fuels underway in the militaries of the world would surprise a lot of people.

This need for rapid innovation of technological and logistical answers to energy challenges suggests that many answers to the wider global challenges of climate change, energy supply and energy cost might well come from the military. At the same time, their immediate mission always must have the overriding priority, which might militate against deploying the sustained long-term energy productivity management practices displayed by the best of industry. This is an area where industry might have something to share.

Benchmark industrial companies demonstrate sustained commitment to reduce overall energy use, environmental impact and cost risks, supported by clear leadership and operational targets, and high-quality data. In the good times, some others see this is an unnecessary luxury. In the tough times, these same critics scramble to reduce energy costs and risks in rapidly deteriorating market circumstances. These differences in management philosophy and practice can be a key to survival or collapse when reduced risks and every penny count. The current situation in the global automotive market highlights this in a number of ways.

At the end of the meeting, I was struck less by the differences than the similarities in the energy management needs for large organization, whether military, industrial or municipal. As we face the next 100 years of energy challenges, there’s no substitute for systematic implementation of the loading order priorities. Rocket science it’s not, but systematic management of these priorities is still all too rare.

Peter Garforth is principal of Garforth International LLC, Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected].

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