Air Force meets fuel efficiency goal several years early

Friday - 3/22/2013, 5:54am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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In 2006, the Air Force decided it wanted to reduce its annual consumption of aviation fuel by 10 percent within 10 years. The service beat that goal and did it several years ahead of schedule, officials said Thursday.

Seven years ago, the Air Force set a target of 2015 to cut its fuel use by one- tenth. The stats from fiscal 2012 are now in though, and officials say they have already reduced consumption by 12 percent compared to what was burned in 2006.

The Air Force long has been by far the federal government's largest consumer of energy, so every marginal improvement in fuel conservation makes a huge difference to the service's bottom line, said Dr. Jamie Morin, the acting Air Force undersecretary.

"In 2012, we consumed $9 billion worth of energy, and about 85 percent of that went to aviation fuel. It's a huge share of our budget: 8 percent of it goes just for gas, and for comparison purposes, it's almost as much as we spend on all of our space activities," Morin told reporters on a conference call.

Dr. Jamie Morin, acting undersecretary of the Air Force

The fuel savings came from a combination of changes in equipment and more intelligent operational processes that build from what commercial aviation companies have been doing for a long time. Translated into monetary terms, the Air Force estimates it would have spent an additional $1.5 billion on fuel last year if it were still burning through petroleum at 2006 levels.

"In 2012, that amount of money would have funded our full flying hour program for all of our active-duty bombers and our attack aircraft. This is real money that we didn't have to spend on fuel," Morin said. "That's especially important given the volatility of the fuel market in recent years. Exposing ourselves to that much volatility is a risk for us."

Borrowing best practices

Air Force officials said that most of the savings were the result of changes the service has made in its flight procedures and the equipment it uses, particularly in the mobility air forces that move people, fuel and cargo around the world each day.

The service borrowed most of those ideas from the commercial sector: planning cargo sorties so that planes wait until their loads reach a certain capacity level before they take off, loading aircraft so that their weight is optimally balanced across an airframe and planning flights to take advantage of natural wind patterns around the globe so that flights face fewer headwinds.

"We've also benefited enormously from the fact that we have so many airmen in the guard and reserve who, in their day jobs, are commercial pilots, and we can leverage their expertise," Morin said. "We've also looked at our fuel loading on aircraft. Every gallon of fuel you carry into the sky that you don't need for the mission you're flying is additional weight you're carrying in order to get it up there, and additional fuel consumption. So we have done much more precise fuel loading, particularly on our routine cargo channel missions, which, again, is a widespread practice in the commercial aviation industry."

The Air Force freely acknowledged, however, that simply keeping track of the number of gallons of fuel it uses isn't the most accurate way to track the efficiency of its operations. Fuel also can be saved by simply flying fewer missions, something that's also happened since 2006 as the Air Force reduced its number of fighter aircraft across the service.

And this year's sequestration cuts also will cut the Air Force's fuel consumption, though not by choice.

"We're going to have to stand-down squadrons across the Air Force, and so they won't be burning gas. Unfortunately, they also won't be producing military readiness, which is what we really need right now," he said. "That's a case where we're not energy efficient, we're just using less energy because we're doing less stuff for the country. So I think under sequestration we'll actually increase our performance against that old goal, which is why we need to challenge ourselves with a goal that's more oriented around efficiency and output. How many gallons of gas does it take to produce a trained and ready pilot? How many gallons of gas does it take to move a ton of cargo a thousand miles?"

New approach to measuring efficiency

The Air Force said the fuel reductions it saw since 2006 were predominately the result of more efficient practices, but it will soon switch to a more nuanced way of measuring fuel efficiency as part of a revised overall Air Force strategic plan for energy the service released this week.

While the vast majority of the energy the Air Force consumes comes in the form of liquid fuel loaded into the gas tanks of its air mobility fleet, the plan will continue to target electricity use in Air Force facilities. The military services measure their facility energy consumption in terms of energy intensity, one widely-adopted measure of energy efficiency.

On that score, the Air Force says it has reduced its electric usage by 21 percent since 2006 and is on track toward a 37.5 percent reduction by 2020. The service also wants to have 25 percent of its facility energy consumption come from renewable energy sources by 2025.

But even if those long-term goals eventually are met, they're essentially on hold for the rest of 2013 as a consequence of sequestration. As in the other military services, the squeeze the automatic budget cuts have placed on operation and maintenance dollars has made it impossible to follow through on plans to upgrade buildings to be more energy efficient, or to conduct any other type of maintenance for that matter, Morin said.

"This is something that's in our face and it's already happening. Since we have to take a year's worth of cuts in seven months, we've had to absolutely stand on the brakes in terms of vital facility investments," he said. "We had to take much deeper reductions in our facilities in order to somewhat protect our flying hours, and we've limited facility sustainment to only emergency work orders. We're seeing about a 90 percent reduction in that area, which means we can't even do very simple things that pay for themselves very quickly, like replacing a building's windows with more energy-efficient ones. Those are all crowded out. We're only dealing with emergency requirements, and that's what our situation will be for the remainder of this fiscal year."

The Air Force also is operating more facilities than it wants, a situation DoD has tried to rectify by asking for another round of base realignments and closures. So far however, Congress has shown zero appetite for that idea.

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