SECAF discusses alternative energy initiatives at conference

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Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne championed Air Force alternative energy initiatives at the Third Aviation and Environment conference on Apr. 22.

Speaking on a panel on carbon emissions with senior leaders in the aviation industry, Secretary Wynne described the problems faced by the Air Force in regard to aviation fuel.

"Today the petroleum market is controlled by a small handful of producers. This leads to higher costs and less price stability," he said.

Part of the Air Force's response, he said, has been to diversify its supplier base for energy needs. This includes seeking out alternative sources of aviation fuel and encouraging new suppliers to enter the market.

"Our goal is not to become a producer of synthetic fuels. It is to provide a stable market for fuel that will entice industry to develop the means to produce it for us," Secretary Wynne said.

He highlighted that the B-52 Stratofortress long-range bomber was certified to fly on a synthetic fuel blend as of August 2007. He also noted that certification to fly the B-1 Lancer and C-17 Globemaster III on synthetic fuel blends is currently underway.

The Air Force has not yet found a single perfect solution.

"The search for new fuel sources must be treated holistically," he said. "We must find the right mix of fuels that provides us with greater energy independence and meets our need to lower our carbon footprint."

Secretary Wynne stated that as a consumer of nearly $6B in aviation fuel annually, the Air Force considers the full life cycle of aviation fuel -- from extraction to processing to consumption -- in its decision-making. He said fiscal and environmental considerations are different at each step in the life cycle.

Other factors must also be accounted for, said Secretary Wynne. For instance, he encouraged the audience to consider how using bio-fuels on a large scale could affect food prices, land use and water resources. He also suggested that much is unknown about how various synthetic fuels affect aircraft engine life. For instance, due to residual deposits and gumming problems, bio-based fuels increase maintenance costs. However, cleaner burning coal-to-liquid based fuels can substantially reduce maintenance costs.

During his remarks, Secretary Wynne reiterated the Air Force's goal of certifying the entire Air Force fleet for synthetic fuel blends by early 2011. He related this goal to the Air Force's mission of enhancing sovereign options for the United States.

Responding to questions after the panel, Secretary Wynne emphasized how the private sector is an important partner for Air Force alternative energy initiatives. He also noted that civil and commercial innovation often follows military sponsorship of technology "mega-projects."

"Developing a process that will produce new clean synthetic fuels is an ambitious goal," Secretary Wynne said, "but we have a good track record of succeeding at this sort of project. The military has a unique ability to overcome start up costs that commerce cannot.

"From the Manhattan Project that gave us nuclear energy, to the Atlas Rocket Project that led to commercial space, to ARPAnet that paved the way for the Internet, the military has often played an important role in moving the technological ball forward," the secretary said.

"What the Air Force is doing today is paving the way for the aviation industry to become less dependent on an expensive and unstable energy sources and implement more environmentally sound practices," he said.