Sustainably Securing the Home Front

As American soldiers continue to hold their position in turbulent foreign environments, at home the U.S. armed forces have been striving to reduce their petroleum footprint by employing biodiesel in non-tactical applications.
By Nicholas Zeman | January 10, 2007
Some critics of the War in Iraq maintain that the nearly four years of fighting has stemmed from U.S. government's-more specifically, the Bush Administration's-desire for more influence over unstable or hostile Middle Eastern regimes and the oil supplies that lie at stake in the region. Whatever the truth, the federal government has, in fact, acknowledged that there is an energy crisis, and it is searching high and low for ways to promote the production and use of renewable energy sources as a matter of national security.

Seven years ago, biofuels didn't have the political enthusiasm or public support compared with the explosion of media coverage, investment mania and construction that occurred in 2006. Although biofuels weren't on most people's minds at the time, former President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order (EO) 13149, which was intended to establish the government's position as a leader in finding energy solutions and alternatives for the future. "Reduced petroleum use and the displacement of petroleum by alternative fuels will help promote markets for more alternative-fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles, encourage new technologies, enhance the United States' energy self-sufficiency and security, and ensure a healthier environment through the reduction of greenhouse gases and other pollutants in the atmosphere," according to the order.

Pam Sorino, chief of product technology and standardization at the Defense Energy Support Center (DESC), says the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which required certain vehicle fleets to acquire renewable fuel vehicles, and EO 13149 were the primary drivers in the military's experimentation with renewable fuels. The DESC manages the procurement and distribution of fuel for all branches of the armed forces. Because of the lack of equipment needed for most bases to handle their own renewable fueling needs, however, and the absence of convenient biodiesel distribution channels, integrating new products into the daily operations of the military has been a challenge.

The war effort has severely taxed funding for routine maintenance and equipment upgrades, much less for the development of progressive or experimental programs. Sally Jo Hahn, an environmental specialist and point of contact for alternative fuel infrastructure for the U.S. Army Installation Management Command, says financial and managerial strains caused by the war, coupled with the relatively immature biodiesel industry, have made her job a difficult one. "Some places are just harder to get fuel to right now," Hahn says. "It's extremely prohibitive. There are other places where fuel is plentiful, but we need more storage tanks and dispensers at the posts. We've become so involved in the war effort that we don't have any money to replace old infrastructure."

The funding situation is so bad, in fact, that U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker refused to submit a budget plan-without a significant increase in the baseline for 2008-to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, arguing the military could not continue operations in Iraq, as well as its other responsibilities, without additional funds, the Los Angeles Times reported in September.

Although the U.S. Army is under a lot of pressure, Schoomaker hasn't allowed the focus on sustainability initiatives to diminish, Hahn says. "One of the keys to success in the army is having someone at the top of the organization willing to support the installation, and that is coming from [Schoomaker]," Hahn says. "Going back 15 years or so, the army was not so hot on sustainability, but they got the message in a big way and figured out that if they did not start doing things differently, they weren't going to be around. Renewable fuels are a part of that sustainability initiative."

Experienced Handlers
Peterson Air Force Base, near Colorado Springs, Colo., was a pioneer in renewable fuels usage and could now be considered an experienced biodiesel handler.

The base was established during World War II at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, and it is the headquarters of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). This Air Force division works closely with NASA to launch satellites and space shuttles. It also collects weather data and conducts flights of experimental planes, helicopters and other equipment.

Chuck McGarvey, fuels manager at AFSPC, is well-versed on cold filter plugging points, storage stability and the characteristics of the different feedstocks used to make biodiesel. "I would say my preference is either the virgin soy or canola, but we've also found that yellow greases have value in added lubricity."

Performance in diesel engines is enhanced by biodiesel, says Gary Passmore, transportation director at Naval Station Everett outside of Seattle. A serviceman with 34 years experience, Passmore began studying biodiesel when he arrived at Everett after a long stint at a now-decomissioned base in Kodiak, Alaska. "This was a brand-new base, which was doing things differently, and they gave [me] a lot of leeway on initiatives and directives," Passmore says.

One of the first applications at Everett was in buses the base had acquired from Seattle Metro Transit, which had each seen about 500,000 miles of service. Passmore and company had to replace the fuel filters before these rigs began burning biodiesel, but after that, "No one even noticed," he says. "It was a very simple transition." Since then, Passmore has learned that biodiesel can have problems in the cold, and because of oxidation vulnerability, it needs to be used within a certain time frame after delivery from a supplier. For the military, and the industry itself, oxidative stability is an ongoing concern in regard to biodiesel storage. "Our standard [for expiration] is six months," McGarvey says.

At Peterson, biodiesel isn't used between October and April because of dependability concerns. "You can't be towing a missile from one silo to another and have a tractor crap out on you," McGarvey says. "We don't use biodiesel in stationary equipment because of the inability to turn it over quickly."

Quality Management
With experienced handlers who know what precautions to take, the best operating conditions and the characteristics of the fuel, serious biodiesel challenges can be avoided. The DESC says there have been relatively few complaints from base equipment operators who are using biodiesel blends.

Government inspection is usually conducted and approval granted during receiving activities at a particular destination. However, because there are currently no ASTM specifications for B20 and because the service buys all of its biodiesel pre-blended, it is virtually impossible to tell if off-spec fuel has entered the supply, Sorino says. Efforts are currently underway to develop an ASTM spec particularly for B20. A task force led by Sorino has been working with original equipment manufacturers and ASTM on this front.

The DESC says it handles all biodiesel transactions in the same way that it handles petroleum, in that biodiesel is procured and supplied to installations through the ground fuels division. Biodiesel doesn't have the infrastructure or history of petroleum, so there are fewer sources of supply. "[The DESC] is kind of our go-between," McGarvey says. "They set contracts for periods, for spot buys. A lot of it used to come from World Energy [Alternatives LLC], but now there are folks all over the country who have set up little mom and pop operations, so I am sure it's coming from additional sources."

As one of the largest purchasers of biodiesel in the world, the DESC has a unique perspective on how the industry is changing and developing. Tyler Parks, ground fuels division chief for the DESC, says the ability to procure biodiesel from multiple suppliers is indeed a relatively new phenomenon. The DESC has to identify potential biodiesel suppliers and inform them of the terms and conditions for bidding. A solicitation package is then provided to the supplier, which contains fuel specifications, quality assurance programs, quantity measurements and delivery requirements. Suppliers, in turn, bid on an entire region or specific line items requested by ground fuel customers.

"There are several new players who have come on line recently," Parks says. "World Energy was certainly one of the first [and once exclusive] players that we procured biodiesel from, but we have been able to recently increase the support for the [biodiesel] program in respect to our vendors." Obviously, any time there is increased competition in the bidding process, it will have a positive effect on the cost for the purchaser. So increased competition for contracts, and consequently, lower prices, are welcomed particularly during a time of strained funding.

Biodiesel retailers and distributors have also realized that there is a market comprised of military personnel who want to run biodiesel in their personal vehicles. "There have been some creative vendors who have positioned themselves outside the gates of some installations," Hahn says. "Vendors have figured out that personnel are requirred to use the fuel if is is reasonably available and not too expensive, which I believe is the exact language in the [Energy Policy Act].'"

Officially, customer organized groups are the designated purchasing and distribution system in place at the DESC. This system, which resembles the Petroleum Administration Defense Districts used by the U.S. DOE to track gasoline supplies, is meant to consolidate fuel requirements by geographic region. A base must submit a requirement document to the DESC, including location, projected annual usage, the number and size of storage tanks available, and delivery preferences.

As fuel quality issues are resolved and an ASTM B20 pec is put in place, Sorino says she anticipates the military's use of biodiesel will expand to further applications. "The DESC has been at the forefront of implementing new technologies and products," Parks says. "So as far as our activities are concerned, we are always looking for the next best thing for our customers, and one of these is biodiesel."

Nicholas Zeman is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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