Air Force to consume — not pay for the development of — biofuels

Thursday - 10/27/2011, 7:44am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Air Force wants to fulfill half of its U.S.-based jet fuel needs with alternative fuels by 2016, and expects to be ready for that target ahead of time. By the end of 2013, the Air Force thinks it will have certified all the aircraft in its inventory to operate on synthetic fuels and biofuels.

But Dr. Kevin Geiss, the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, said the service views itself as a consumer, not a producer of energy. It doesn't intend to get into the business of researching how to develop those fuels.

"So what we're doing is making sure we can use that fuel when it becomes available," Geiss told an Air Force Association breakfast Wednesday in Arlington, Va. "We're also committing to buying half of what we need for fuel from these alternative sources."

The Air Force's commitment to buy biofuels comes with a few caveats, similar to those adopted by the Navy. It has to be produced domestically, it must be available in locations where the Air Force currently operates, it has to be cost-competitive with today's petroleum fuels and it needs to be a drop-in replacement that the Air Force can use without modifying its aircraft. Geiss said part of the reason for the hands-off approach to technological research on biofuels is that there are too many factors in the industry that are out of the Air Force's control.

Dr. Kevin Geiss, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy

"What are the feedstocks going to be? Where are the facilities going to be built? We're looking for industry to do what it does best, and figure out how to make it work," he said. "We've developed a significant willing receptor for the fuel, and if it's at a cost-competitive price, we don't have to fund it in our budget. We're paying for fuel anyway, and if that's what happens to be the fuel that's on the ramp at a given airport, we'll buy it without having to go through any special procurement process."

Different approach

The Air Force approach to biofuels research differs from that of the Navy. That service announced this summer that it plans to invest $500 million in the development of drop-in biofuels, together with the Agriculture and Energy Departments.

"The Navy's getting a lot of press lately on their biofuel initiative, but I want to remind you of a few firsts in the alternative fuels world," he said. "The Air Force flew the first transcontinental flight, the first supersonic flight and conducted the first aerial refueling using a synthetic fuel blend. In May, the Thunderbirds showcased biofuels' capability and their performance at Joint Base Andrews for the first service aerial demonstration team. I talked to the pilots when they came back and asked them if they noticed any difference. No difference."

The Air Force uses more energy than any other agency in the government, and 80 percent of its share goes into the fuel tanks of its aircraft: about 2.5 billion gallons a year. Geiss said the service is taking energy management seriously, proceeding along four tracks:

  • Assuring the energy supply, including transitioning to alternate fuels;

  • Fostering an energy aware culture in the service;

  • Improving resiliency to possible disruptions in energy supplies;

  • Reducing demand for fuel

On the last count — demand — Geiss said the service has shown major progress already in the Air Force component that uses more fuel than any other, the Air Mobility Command. It expects to save $325 million over the next five years by taking steps such as reducing weight on aircraft, taking more direct flight paths and paying closer attention to the center of gravity on loaded cargo planes.

"The Air Force is hauling 27 percent more cargo over the last five years with only three percent more fuel," he said. "We're hauling a whole lot more stuff. Talking about efficiency means different things to different people. Last year it meant finding moneyin one place so it can be spent someplace else. Now what we're talking about is really trying to do less with less."

Creating an energy-aware culture

On its installations, Geiss said, the Air Force is trying to improve resiliency by using alternative electric generation techniques like solar, wind and biomass, and pairing them up with localized smart microgrid technologies. The intention is to let critical functions at bases continue to operate if something happens to the civilian electric grid.

And, he said, there are some recent examples of cultural awareness of energy use cropping up at Air Force facilities.

"One example down at Warner-Robbins was from the C-5 paint booth. The C-5 is a big cargo plane. You know when they're coming, they don't just show up and say, 'Hey, paint me,'" he said. "So they realized they had the temperature and humidity set at the same point every single day, but those planes only come so often. By only setting the temperature and humidity a day or two before a painting operation was going to start, they saved $400,000 a year."

Geiss said to help beef up that energy-aware culture, the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command is doing a scrub of its entire training portfolio to see where it can incorporate energy elements into the service's training and doctrine. He also said the Air Force is about to start using a new process that incorporates energy usage considerations into its acquisition decisions.

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