When Jackalyne Pfannenstiel took office last March as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment, something was missing from her résumé: experience with the military. But five years as chairwoman of the California Energy Commission and 20 years with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company more than made up for that gap.
As Pfannenstiel tells James Gerstenzang, her mission includes overseeing Navy and Marine Corps bases around the world, compliance with environmental standards, and efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to find alternative energy sources to power everything from jet fighters and warships to computers and communications gear at forward operating bases in Afghanistan. For inspiration, she need only look at the wall behind her desk. There hangs a portrait of a three-masted nineteenth-century warship, its sails full, powered by nothing but the wind.
What has the transition been like from the civilian sector to the military?
Technically, energy is energy, but from a cultural standpoint it's a different world, because the needs here are different. People are much more interested in energy because it's so directly tied to our mission.
Why is the Navy farther along on this than the other services?
Navy Secretary [Ray] Mabus recognized very early on the strategic importance of energy and our dependence on it from a military point of view -- and so much of it is imported. Our job is to defend the country. So how do we reduce the risk that's involved in importing so much of this critical resource? We also use a huge amount of energy in theater, in military operations. And that makes us vulnerable, both in terms of cost and in the risk to fuel convoys. So getting ourselves off imported energy is both a tactical and a strategic priority.
How are the folks in uniform responding to these changes?
These people are creative. I don't think they necessarily care what fuels go in their machines, but they love being part of getting things done differently. It doesn't matter whether they believe in being green or whether they believe in climate change, but they do understand the strategic issues around fuel and our dependence on imported fuel. The operational people in both the Navy and the Marines are off the charts with some of the stuff they're doing in actual wartime operations. The Marines have these experimental forward operating bases in Afghanistan where they're putting together solar panels that power the air-conditioning for their tents and the desalination packages for clean water. They've also asked manufacturers to come to Quantico and show what they have to offer. And then they pick the best technologies and six months later they're using them in Afghanistan.
What's happening on bases in the United States?
The goal is to reduce fossil energy use by 50 percent by 2020 and to cut the petroleum we use in our non-tactical fleet by the same amount by 2015. You'll be seeing a lot of electric vehicles on our bases; they're a very good fit. The Navy and Marines have almost 100 bases. Some are tiny recruiting stations and others are enormous, like Norfolk. They have housing, some retail, lots of offices, industrial sections -- and they use energy in much the same ways a community or town would. Energy efficiency is our first step. It's the cheapest alternative, and everybody realizes that. So we're introducing more-efficient lighting, windows, insulation -- all the things that give more bang for the buck from the existing energy supply. We are also putting in a lot of solar and wind and geothermal and looking at waste energy.
How does all this compare with the standards in California?
These are all the kinds of things we pushed for in the California Energy Commission. But the Navy just came out with a new building standard for energy efficiency that's ahead of California's. I thought California had the most aggressive building standards in the country, but I'm told that our new standards are 30 percent more stringent.
Even so, bases are only a small part of your total energy use.
Yes, if you had a little pie chart you would see that about 94 percent of our energy use is operational or tactical; only about 6 percent is on bases. But Secretary Mabus has the same goal for these areas as he does for bases.
You've talked about building a Great Green Fleet by 2016.
We want all our ships and aircraft to run on non-fossil fuels. Of course the subs and the carriers are already nuclear. We just tested an experimental riverine command boat on an algae-blend biofuel, and it ran fine. We're going to be testing different categories of ships over the next year. As for aircraft, we've already tested an F/A-18 fighter on a 50-50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel. We call that plane the Green Hornet. We flew it on Earth Day and it went Mach 1.6 and tested beautifully. So we showed that these very elaborate machines can run just fine on biofuels, with no deterioration in performance.
What's involved in supplying the biofuel crops you need?
We have a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Agriculture, and there's a group working on biofuels in Hawaii that includes the USDA, our bases there, and Hawaiian Electric. We are not looking at any one specific crop. We want to be open-minded as long as it's a sustainable crop -- which means taking into account the whole lifecycle cost, including the carbon emissions involved in production.
What are the practical considerations in expanding biofuel use?
We're looking at four things: what fuels to use, how they work in our existing platforms, how to get cost down to a price point that is competitive, and how to scale up to the quantities you ultimately are going to need. So far our tests have just been using bathtub-size quantities, but clearly we need alternatives that can be scaled up quickly. If we want to sail a Great Green Fleet by 2016, we have to be testing these fuels in local operations by 2012.
How could these developments translate into the civilian world? In the past, research by the military has often had a long-term impact on civilian technologies.
I think biofuels are a great example of the benefits we could achieve here. Commercial aviation dwarfs us in terms of fuel use. What we can do is test out the technologies and the fuels. You know that if it works in an F/A-18, it's going to work in other platforms.
Are you talking to the private sector directly about this?
Definitely. The airline industry needs to be able to find alternative fuels, and the European Union will be setting some tighter restrictions. The industry is running on pretty thin margins. They don't have a lot of flexibility in testing out different fuels. And so if we can push that alternative fuel technology forward, and maybe get some of the developers through that valley of death in their financing and get some really credible products, everybody benefits.
Are you getting any pushback from other parts of the fuel industry?
Not yet, although I would expect there will be an ethanol group that will want us to use corn-based ethanol and a coal group that will want us to use coal-to-liquids. Just from the point of view of its performance characteristics, corn-based ethanol won't work in our ships and planes. As for coal-to-liquids, because of our desire to have sustainable alternative fuels, that won't fit into our program either.
How about on Capitol Hill?
Our plans have been very well received. It's because we're basing our arguments not on climate change but on national security.