Sunday, November 30, 2008

Air Force Renewables Dream: Carbon Dioxide to Jet Fuel

As an F-15 hurtles skyward, hydrocarbon jet fuel converts to energy, heat and CO2 at a rate of dozens of gallons of JP8 per minute. Fuel moves our aircraft, ground vehicles and most of our ships, but often comes from less-than-reliable places at more than affordable prices, and creates CO2 when it's combusted. One company in Santa Barbara, CA is developing a means to reverse that process by combining water and CO2 to get fuel.

Carbon Sciences' first prototype is set to run early in early 2009. Some will argue that the end result of this process is CO2 when the jet flies again so that's more greenhouse gas production. But on the other hand, if this works as planned, and the fuel is made from CO2, which everyone is trying to figure out to limit or sequester from a climate change perspective, then we've got a CO2 loop with net zero production.

As this blog concerns itself with energy security, economics and climate issues in that order, this is a potential huge win. Carbon Sciences is just getting started, but their claims that this process will scale could make them a very interesting player in the Air Force's next generation fuels efforts.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Potential Solution to DOD's Grid Dependency Problem

If I told you there was an interesting new renewable energy company with an office on Trinity Drive in Los Alamos, could you guess what kind of technology we'd be talking about? Nuclear would be a good start, but this time with important differences:
  • Small in size
  • About 25 MW in capacity - enough for 20,000 homes
  • Inherently safe design, built to work underground
  • $25-30M for each unit
  • Almost ready for production
Here's another new company to keep an eye on: New Mexico-based Hyperion Power Generation. If they can execute their plan, we may have an affordable response to one of the DSB's Feb 2008 report's key recommendations about DOD bases needing to break their dependency on the fragile, vulnerable, national grid. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving. I'm going to take a few days off and come back with new posts starting 1 Dec.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Small Co Pushes Biofuel Flight Envelope

Tiny, Florida-based Green Flight International is a working a fuel problem the military in general, and the Air Force in particular, hope they can solve. With scrutiny and approval from the FAA and some support from Lockheed, Green Flight has just flown a 1960's-era single-engine Czechoslovakian training jet coast-to-coast on a nutritious 50-50 blend of JP8, soy and animal fat.

While the Air Force is currently certifying its inventory to fly on a mixture of JP8 and fuel derived from coal, the benefits of that process seem limited at present. Certainly, fuel from coal is a big energy security gain (the US owns a heck of a lot of coal). But it comes at high economic and environmental costs. So the next generation synthetic fuels in the Air Force's road map include biofuels derived from multiple potential sources. 

Green Flights' demonstrated ability to fly its jet on various types of fuels ... and its upcoming flight test of an algae-based biodiesel, is identifying some options the Air Force might do well to explore in greater depth. More details are in this Scientific American article from last year.

Photo: Green Flight International

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Big 3 Redux

Thanks to feedback I got from a smart DOD Energy Blog reader over the weekend, I'd like to revise the Army vs. Big 3 comparison made in the previous post. My claim was that the Army was out ahead of GM in renewables and fuel efficiency R&D, and that this demonstrated commendable thinking on the Army's part. And that this was a sure sign of GM's (and Ford & Chrysler's) continuing neglect of an important new market segment.

Well, it's worth noting that the Army is compelled to action, at least in part, by DOD's recent embrace (in NDAA 2009 and earlier) of the the fully burdened cost of fuel (FBCF) concept as a key performance parameter (KPP). After years of system design and budgeting in a vacuum free of the constraints of fuel costs, conducting concurrent large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during a time of high and volatile oil prices has awoken the Pentagon to this problem ... in a big way.

US automakers have had no similar moment of truth this decade, as they've attempted to meet customer demand for higher quality, but not necessarily higher mileage, vehicles. I happily paid $1.87 per gallon to fill up my Ford yesterday and expect, barring a significant act of war or espionage, to pay low prices for some time. But what do I know? And aside from the Peak Oil theory to which many folks including me subscribe, what does anyone know about the price of oil in the next few years?

The Big 3 have prospered (generally) from selling cars that people in the US and Europe have wanted to buy. The current economic crisis is hammering them as it is all auto manufacturers. But my guess is that what's got the US companies in their particularly precarious present position has less to do with the fact they've yet to produce a Prius, and more to do with structural challenges and not really tackling their quality issues until relatively recently.

Photo of Ford's "Glass House" HQ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thinking about US Car Makers Tonight ...

... and how their fate might impact DOD in the energy/transportation sector. Word from Capitol Hill at the end of the day is that the CEOs were sent packing without the bailout deals they sought. I like that congress pushed back and basically said, "hey, you don't even have a plan for what you'd do with the money." So GM et al get to go back to Detroit and think up something smart mighty fast ... and not the usual SUV stuff or no one's going to buy it. For an outstanding analysis of the situation, with some keen comparisons to other times and industries, see this article from the Cleantech Blog's John Addison.

I know that the Army does a lot of great work in Warren, MI, just north of Detroit, in an org called the Tank Automotive Research and Development Engineering Center (TARDEC). One of their latest projects is called a Fuel Efficient Ground Vehicle Demonstrator (FED) using an approach inspired in part by the "Monster Garage"show. But the Army isn't innovating to win a reality show or even new customers. And it's not trying to maximize profits. Rather, its motives are mission based, as you can't be an effective rapid-tempo fighting force if a lack of fuel is always slowing you down ... or worse.

My guess is there's a lot of cross pollination and partnering in the vehicles ecosystem in Michigan. Seems like a reversal of stereotypes is occurring: the commercial companies in question have a lot to learn about business from the government ... in this case, an innovating, imaginative US Army.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Old and New Energy Development Hits the Brakes

Boston is hosting two energy-related conferences this week. One is the giant Green Build expo which is advancing the very successful LEED program, focusing on improving energy efficiency, energy management and materials issues in the construction industry. The other I discuss here is the 4th Conference on Clean Energy, which brings together much of the New England-area venture capital and academic tech transfer communities. Normally a very optimistic and stimulating stage to announce all the new stuff going on in the tech energy space.

While the innovators from MIT and elsewhere have some fantastic new technologies, the lead off speaker began by acknowledging an unruly and very large mammal head on: the elephant in the room. Though anyone with access to the media knows that the global economy is grinding to a halt and that investments and other capital expenditures are way down, it was a bit of a shock to hear it spoken out loud in a forum like this. Talk about boom-bust:
  • Most energy infrastructure work (development and maintenance) is stalled ... worldwide
  • Oil development work in US slowing, stopping
  • Russia infrastructure will deteriorate and oil output will decline over next few years
  • Only some OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia will continue to spending on their oil infrastructure ... though at a lower rate than in the past
  • Investments in the renewables build-out way down as no money is flowing 
Take away: when the economy recovers, there' s going to be even less global oil available than there was when it hit $147 a barrel this summer. And the only country that's keeping its gear in good shape, Saudi, will comprise a larger % share of US oil imports than it ever has. For DOD, this is a very good time to avoid short term thinking if it can.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

UAVs' Unknown (But Potentially Enormous) Impact on DOD Energy Demand

Recent DOD Energy Blog posts like this one have show strong trend lines towards greater use of UAVs by the US military. Much greater, in fact. Now this Slate article makes it clear that our Predator drones are doing a great job in Afghanistan, military and politically. 

And guess what that means? We're going to make more of these aircraft, train more ground-pilots, and keep UAVs in the air more often. I need to find out how much fuel these planes use per hour and how long a typical mission is. And how many are in the air at any one time. And how many will be in the air in a year. And will sensor and comm (if not weapon) systems be miniaturized enough for them to be carried on lightweight versions powered in part, or in full by solar/fuel cell/battery/etc. 

While the comparison is far from perfect, here's a taste of how much JP8 some of their manned counterparts consume from Dr. Karbuz's most recent paper:
  • B1-B bomber: 59 gallons per minute
  • B-52 bomber: 54 gallons per minute
  • KC-135 tanker: 35 gallons per minute
  • F-16 fighter: 13 gallons per minute
I wonder if someone at the Pentagon is keeping track of this and thinking about what this trend might do to AF and Army energy budgets and logistics?  

Lastly, it's not just the US that's learning how effective they can be, see the cautionary note the conclusion of the Slate piece about how other countries are becoming enamored of UAVs as well. And not just our friends.

Photo courtesy of Mike Hawes @ Flickr

Monday, November 17, 2008

Navy Energy Wake-up Call

You have till then end of November to register your favorite small company with DON's Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NFEC) on an early stage "sources sought" solicitation. This initiative isn't so much about solving problems with new energy technology or policies, as much as it's about waking Navy personnel up to energy challenges in the first place. Particularly in the field of conservation, the cumulative efforts of many can make a big impact.  

Here's how the solicitation puts it: 
The purpose of the Energy Awareness Program is to publicize the goals, strategies, successes and lessons learned of the Navy Energy Program, produce an annual Secretary of Navy awards ceremony, increase Naval military and civilian employees’ knowledge of energy efficiency and conservation, develop products that will change the behavior of Navy personnel resulting in decreased energy use, develop and transfer technical and program management information to the DON community, and assist Naval activities in meeting energy reduction goals through awareness education.
There's no money in it yet, but this is a necessary prerequisite to gauge industry's interest and capabilities. How about a Prius-like display in each ship that tells the Captain when he's getting the best fuel economy (maybe this already exists)?  Or awards for seamen who submit the best energy saving ideas on shore and at sea?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wanted: 4 Saudi Arabias

In the same article yesterday that cited oil dipping to $54 a barrel, the lead economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted production is declining worldwide. Looks like economic activity is falling faster than production so the price is still dropping. But here's the cruel and ironic part: 
Recent oil project delays announced by several companies could spark a supply crunch by 2010, Birol warned.
So the same economic conditions that are keeping price down today are also scuttling exploration and development projects that could increase supply in the future. And even accounting for the current global economic slowdown, expected increases in demand mean a shortfall is looming:
The IEA ... forecast that extra oil production of 45 million barrels per day was needed by 2030 to offset declining oilfield output. That [is] more than four times the current capacity of Saudi Arabia, which is the world’s biggest oil producer.

Personally, I feel that one Saudi Arabia is more than enough, and that there's very little chance of us finding the equivalent of one more, let alone four. So we better get used to doing more with less, or figure out a way to make new fuel fast. Enjoy the low prices today ... the days of inexpensive oil are certainly numbered.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A DOD without Oil ...

... today, would probably work about as well as the Tin Man at the start of the Wizard of Oz. In fact, in the movie, the only thing that puts him back in motion is oil.

Frequent readers of this blog will note I'm making the case that DOD, far from being a laggard in energy transformation, has compelling mission-based and structural reasons for being out in front in innovation, clearing the way for the rest of the nation. 

I recently found back-up from a guy who penned this fantastic and prescient paper: "War Without Oil: A Catalyst For True Transformation" 2 years ago while at Air War College. Author Col. Michael J. Hornitschek, Zoomie class of 1989 and now Vice Commander, 62nd Airlift Wing, McChord AFB, Washington, has spent a heck of a lot of time in and around tankers including the KC-10 and KC-135. That means a lot of time immersed in the business of fuel, and clearly it went to his head.

On page 3 of his 95 page paper (now linked under "DOD Enery Reports" in this blog's sidebar) Hornitschek nails it:
It is precisely the long acquisition lead times of these petroleum-fueled weapon systems [e.g., F-22A Raptor], in conjunction with their decades-long life cycles [e.g, the 45-year-old B-52 fleet], that will uniquely force the DoD to be the first government agency to address an approaching global oil peak.
I also like the boldness of Chapter 3 - Creating an Assured Energy Strategy, which includes a "Three Stage Approach" as follows:
  • Stage I – 2006-2015 Near Term Strategy
  • Stage II – 2020-2035 Mid Term Strategy
  • Stage III – 2035-2050 The “New Energy Force”
It may not turn out to be right or completely do-able as described. And new things will surely come along that neither the author nor anyone else could have foreseeon, but you've got to admire his guts for laying out a case.  More of this, please.

Photo courtesy of Liem Bahneman @ Flickr

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Current Events: Oil Price Yo-Yo now Walking the Dog

Once they have the basic down-then-up motion mastered, one of the very first tricks novice yo-yo practitioners attempt is called "Walking the Dog". This is where the down motion is followed by the yo-yo continuing to spin while staying down (called a "Sleeper") and is then allowed to roll across the floor a bit. With practice, a prolonged "walk" will end with a subtle wrist flick that sends the yo yo flying back up to return to the hand from which it came. Very predictable once you get the hang of it.

Translation: oil's at $59 a barrel tonight and showing no sign of returning to $100, let alone its recent high of $145 anytime soon. And attending the oil price fall, US gasoline prices have dropped for the 17th straight week and are now under $2 a gallon in some locations. In fact, it's not clear that the oil price yo-yo is even in "walk" phase yet.

At the same time, anemic US auto manufacturers are indicating that they're on the verge of collapsing if they don't get a Federal infusion pretty soon. They've already been lent billions to retool to build cars that get far better mileage. Left to their own devices, they weren't ready for this summer's price spike, and they're not ready for the economic downturn now. Lessons for those steering the US economy and industrial base are many, not the least of which is that in a peak oil climate, whatever the price of oil is today, that's what it's least likely to be tomorrow. Ditto for 1, 5, 10, 20 years down the road. Future DOD planning needs to take this volatility as a given and not let it get in the way of specifying systems that are far less impacted by this highly volatile commodity.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Army Energy Strategy Disruptive to Stovepipes

When it comes to energy, if you're a status quo-loving logistician for the Army, your days are numbered. A recent convening of Army leadership revealed the very forward thinking that has been going on in Army energy circles of late. The kind of thinking that has correctly identified institutional interia as the enemy, and is taking bold steps to defeat it:
  • Army Secretary Pete Geren recently appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Partnerships Paul Bollinger to "build a team that will work across the Army and try to break down the stovepipes."
  • Geren approved the creation of the Army Senior Energy Council on Sept. 26
  • Comprised of more than two dozen senior civilian and uniformed leaders, the body is co-chaired by Gen. Pete Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, and Keith Eastin, the service's assistant secretary for installations and environment
Stovepipes, it turns out, burn more oil than all the tanks, planes and ships in the arsenal combined. The full article is here at

Photo courtesy of US Army's Soldiers Media Center on Flickr

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Lockheed "Gets It"

I want you to focus on a quote from a senior Lockheed exec whose job it is to understand the future. Speaking of DOD's emerging appreciation for energy constraints, he said :
Energy availability and cost has direction implications on DOD requirements, operations and costs.... National security strategy may need to be changed. Roles and missions of the services may be affected as well.
This isn't about subtle changes and adjustments; we're talking potentially sweeping changes across DOD and its suppliers.

This, from David Potts, Director of Planning & Analysis at LMC, at a recent GEIA conference, reminded me of a another post on recent comments from DNI Mike McConnell, another man paid to see the future with some clarity, when he said increasing contention for scarce resources, including oil, may well drive more international conflicts in the near future. 

So at a minimum the DNI and one leader at Lockheed get it. But you might well ask: Do the folks who write the JCIDS for DOD? Do the other integrators and the rest of industry? Does Congress?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

DOD's Oil Clock is Ticking

I'm not exagerating when I tell you Dr. Sohbet Karbuz's "Can the U.S. military move to renewable fuels?" in last month's Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is perhaps the best, most consice summation of the militay's fuel concerns in 2008. Informed by a career of research and monitoring of global energy issues for the International Energy Agency (IEA), Karbuz writes from a consistently constructive point of view, and has been paying particular attention to the DOD for years. Compared with me, he's a true expert, and yet my own observations are almost completely in sync with his.

From speaking with senior leadership, and watching where they've put the bulk of their recent energy efforts, it seems DOD is more interested in boasting about its big electricity projects, like a very large solar installation at Nellis AFB, or wind turbines a Guantanemo, than in treating the fuel issue like the institutional life and death issue that it is.

Karbuz himself cannot help but draw discouraging conclusions from the current state of DOD energy activities which seem focused on the lesser of its great challenges:
It is a pity that most of the Pentagon's efforts are concentrated on generating electricity, which accounts for less than 12 percent of military energy consumption, and not on oil, which accounts for more than 75 percent.
Hopefully with the advent of the fully burdened cost of fuel (FBCF) initiative in the 2009 NDAA, we'll start to see a change. But it's got to come fast, to an institution that's often averse to change. It will be decades before the the systems designed today are fielded. Do you the next planes and ships are being designed with fuel efficiency or new fuels in mind?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

DNI Mike McConnell Sees Global Trouble Ahead ...

... and oil is right in the middle of it. Iraq and Afghanistan have been no walk in the park, and both will demand serious attention and consume substantial DOD resources for years. But if DNI is correct, things may only get busier for DOD in the coming two decades:
Territorial expansion and military rivalries are not likely, but cannot be ruled out, and the perception that oil is scarce could trigger conflicts between states.
I think he's being overly conservative using the term "the perception." In the 20th century we saw oil play a strategic role in economic and military success. In the 21st century there are already clear sigals that oil and gas price and availability are key leverage points for Russia and OPEC.  The pressure will come not just from the supply side, but from countries jockeying for what they see as their rightful part of the supply. As we move further into this century, McConnell sees that:

By 2025, China is likely to have the world's second largest economy and to have emerged as a major military power, the largest importer of natural resources and the largest contributor to world pollution.

It's all about energy security: the more we can move DOD and the rest of the economy off the oil standard, the less vulnerabile the US will be to the turmoil McConnell and many others see coming. Those working the problem today know it's a tough, tough problem. They need all the help we can give them.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Conservation Voltage Regulation Could Lighten the Grid's Load

Sometimes good info comes via circuitous routes. From Congressman Bartlett's office and DOD work in Hawaii, via friends at the DC Energy Consensus, please allow me to introduce Seattle-based MicroPlanet. Their Smart Grid technology reduces the amount of voltage required across the grid by reducing voltage requirements at the point of use.

Of course, the DOD needs to follow through on its own recommendations to better secure itself against the risk of grid failure, but anything that can be done to solve the problem on the other side, by reducing grid wear, tear ... and waste, has to be a welcome addition.  

Note: while MicroPlanet has done preliminary testing with the Army and the Marines, this is an early stage company still burning equity investment cash to support development work. But its technology sure seems promising ... stay tuned.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Troubling Tanker Talk

I learned one thing doing source selections at Hanscom AFB in the 1980's in an environment where every award was protested: don't change the rules mid-course. A recent article from  Aerospace Daily & Defense Report comments on the position of Pentagon acquisition chief John Young on the ongoing tanker replacement saga:
Lifecycle cost would be too thorny because of fluctuations in areas outside the Pentagon's control. For example, the price of oil recently dropped, dramatically reducing the lifecycle cost of both aircraft. However, fuel efficiency of the two bids were different, and given the challenge of projecting such costs in the future, Young says the simplest way of conducting a price competition is to focus solely on the up-front price associated with developing and buying the first aircraft.
I wanted to make the case that this procurement, more than any other, should take into account the DOD's own new policy on including the fully burdened cost of fuel (FBCF) in its lifecycle and logistic projections for new systems. But adding that on here mid-course would just be adding to the folly. USAF either needs to award this contract based on the criteria it published when it released the RFP, or it needs to kill this acquisition and start fresh. I'd go with the latter of course.

And this time put fuel efficiency at the top of the requirements list. It's disturbing that leadership is so easily swayed by day-to-day fluctuations in the price of energy, when the overall price trends are clearly pointing up, and at risk of spiking on a moment's notice. Haven't we learned anything from the recent several years of energy-induced budget shock? It's not just the high price, it's the volatility that's beating up DOD budgeting and procurement. See posts herehere, here and here.

KC-135 Photo (from inside F-15) courtsy of USAF & James Gordon

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Executive Order 13423 Drives GSA Change

There's a new energy vehicle in town, though it's not a plug-in hybrid. Washington Technology has a brief announcement of the update and more info can be found here from the GSA itself under the 03FAC Facilities Maintenance & Management schedule.

This contract will make it much easier for Federal Agencies to respond to the renewable energy and energy management objectives outlined by President Bush in last year's Executive Order 13423 (see link in sidebar)

As part of the announcement, GSA outlined the services offered via this schedule, including:
  • Energy Audit Services
  • Energy Management Program Support, Planning and Strategies
  • Water Audits, Management and Conservation Solutions
  • Resource Efficiency Management and Training
  • Innovative Renewable Energy Solutions
  • Building Commissioning Services
  • Metering and Advanced Metering Services 
It's all good stuff.  And as good as it is for Federal leadership to set new energy goals and pronounce success metrics and targets, it's even better when they put the keys in the agencies' hands so they can drive themselves in this new and greatly improved direction.