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State of the Union 2012: energy use and the military

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In his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Obama laid out several key points for his energy policy in the coming year. Natural gas and domestic oil production got a shout-out in the address as part of the President’s vision of supporting domestic energy resources, something that several Republican lawmakers were pleased, and perhaps surprised, to hear.

What I thought was more interesting was the President specifically calling out how big of a consumer of energy the U.S. military is, correctly identifying it as the U.S. government’s largest single consumer of energy. Just how big is big? According to the government’s own energy statistical arm, the Department of Defense uses over 80 percent of all energy consumed by the U.S. government. And by Department of Defense, we really mean fuel for jets.

I pulled the relevant graphs from the EIA’s Annual Energy Review below.

Figure 1.11 shows historical consumption by the U.S. government as a whole compared with Defense. For 2009, Defense used a whopping 880 trillion BTUs 1.

A majority of the Defense’s energy consumption is petroleum, namely jet fuel (506 trillion BTUs in 2009). 2009 data are the right most columns:

By making a push for clean energy with the military, the administration accomplishes several goals. The military, by sheer scale of energy consumption, can accelerate the adoption of energy technologies or processes that might not be economical on a small scale. By essentially guaranteeing that the largest single energy consumer in the world will source a portion of its fuel from renewable or low carbon sources, technologies like large-scale solar arrays or advanced biofuels (algae anyone?) will have a ready-made market and stability to encourage investment and more research, etc. You get the idea.

Of course, by producing more of its energy “in house”, or on American soil, the U.S. military can reduce the amount of foreign energy it consumes, avoiding the irony of invading a country with the very fuel under that country’s soil.

1To give you an idea of what 1 BTU corresponds to, a British Thermal Unit is approximately the same amount of heat energy given off by a wooden kitchen matche. So 880 trillion BTUs is a lot of kitchen matches!

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. MoEnergySci 10:51 pm 01/30/2012

    Apologies if I missed this in the article or the links – but how does the US Gov’t (or Department of Defense) energy consumption compare, to say, residential or industrial energy use in the U.S.?

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  2. 2. JohnBooks 10:07 am 01/31/2012

    MoEnergySci – Look at the Building Energy Data Book put out by the government. Buildings in the US use about 99,500 trillion BTUs. (I think I did that conversion right)

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  3. 3. scottmcnally 11:50 am 01/31/2012

    So if DOD wants to make significant reductions in petroleum use, they either need to find a substitute for jet fuel, or scale back on number of planes/flights, or both. Any idea on what the approach is?

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