October 21st, 2011


Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Energy & Installations


With budget-cutting all the rage in Washington, and the seemingly inviolable Defense Department budget facing cuts, it would not seem a propitious time for the Pentagon to launch an ambitious clean energy agenda. On October 21, at Climate One, two experts – one posted at, and one outside, the Pentagon – argued that DOD’s clean energy programs improve the military’s war-fighting capability and should escape the budget ax.

Each branch is trying to outdo the others to deploy clean energy. But especially ambitious goals have been announced by the Navy, under the leadership of Secretary Ray Mabus (Climate One, 8/16/2010). Lest you think the Navy has been overrun by a cohort of squishy greens, Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Energy, Installations, and Environment, explained why: “We’re doing it to make us better war-fighters. We see energy as a vulnerability.”

“The largest import to Afghanistan, into the actual theater, is oil and water. For every 50 fuel convoys, there is an American killed or wounded,” she said.

Jeremy Carl, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, agreed that clean energy innovations can support the DOD’s mission, but tight budgets will mean that every program faces scrutiny.

“The things that will be most successful, particularly within the military context, are those that focus on the strategic imperative – improving war-fighting capability. Things that are green in and of themselves are nice but are at risk, particularly in a tight budgetary environment, if they don’t contribute to the core military mission,” he said.

Pfannenstiel’s job is to ensure that Mabus’ audacious clean-energy goals are met. “People ask me frequently,” she said, “’Are these aspirational goals? Are these just to get our thinking in that direction?’” My answer is always, ‘No, they are real. We’re going to do them.’”

She listed Mabus’ targets: one-half of the Navy’s energy is to come from non-fossil fuel sources (including nuclear) by 2020; one-half of the 100 Marine Corps and Navy bases around the world will be zero net-energy by 2020; one-half of the non-tactical fleet (on-base trucks, buses, and cars) will be alternative-fueled vehicles by 2015; a Great Green Fleet – a carrier strike group – will set sail next year, and will be ready for global missions by 2016; and energy will be a consideration in the design and procurement of new platforms.

Pfannenstiel noted that 75% of the Navy’s energy use is operational – largely the liquid fuels that power ships, planes, and vehicles in the field and at sea. Climate One’s Greg Dalton asked how close biofuels are to replacing the Navy’s petroleum-based fuels.

“We think that we’re fairly close,” said Pfannenstiel – and that’s under the strict criteria the Navy uses to source biofuel. Permissible biofuels, she said, have to be domestically produced, cannot compete with food stocks, are competitive on price with conventional fuels, are deployable in existing platforms, and scalable.

Carl said he was more confident the Navy’s biofuel suppliers will crack the challenge of scale before cost. “I do think the level of seriousness and scale is much different this time. I wouldn’t want to undersell that challenge either. There’s no certainty that we will get to the place we need to be.”

“We do see that [biofuel suppliers] have the potential to get there at the amount we need, at the price we’re willing to pay, in the time frame. There is nothing that is a deal-killer at this point,” Pfannenstiel said.

Pfannenstiel said the military is likely to get private sector help with the scaling challenge. “Commercial aviation is enormously interested in biofuels,” she said. Carl agreed, saying that “if you could decouple the biofuel cost from oil cost that serves for commercial aviation some convenient goals because they get killed when oil prices spike.”

But how will these programs survive the age of budget austerity? “We look at these programs as being part of how we are going to meet constrained budgets, as helping us be more effective with what we have,” said Pfannenstiel.

“We’re not putting our energy programs on the front of what might be cut. We need to be able to make the case that energy is part of our solution,” she said.

“Mission. Mission. Mission. When I talk to people in all branches of the services,” said Carl, “that is the really key component. Anything that saves energy but does so in a way that enhances the core mission – keeps a ship from re-fueling, allows patrols to go out further because they’re not as dependent on an energy supply line, or they don’t have to carry as many heavy batteries – that stuff is going to be safe in any budgetary environment.”


– Justin Gerdes
October 21, 2011
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California