Biofuels and the Military: Reality Strikes Back

Lots of news bits over the past few years have covered the military’s PR effort to produce a significant amount of biofuels for its own use. The idea is that being able to produce biofuels will make the military more energy independent and reduce the number of lives lost securing fuel in dangerous areas. See here, here, here, here, here, etc. Today, the New York Times reports on a RAND Corporation study urging the military to give up on its biofuel-science experiment.

CEI’s Marlo Lewis has repeatedly pointed out that the only reason the military has been experimenting with biofuels is that it faces no real budget constraint, allowing it to pay as much as $65/gallon for jet fuel. As Marlo wrote in the summer of 2010:

Renewable Energy World also reports that the Navy ordered 200,000 gallons of camelina-based jet fuel for 2009-2010 and has an option to purchase another 200,000 gallons during 2010-2012. Sounds impressive, but let’s put those numbers in perspective. In just three months in peacetime, the flight crew of a single vessel — the USS NASSAU, a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship – flew more than 2,800 hours and burned over 1 million gallons of jet fuel.

Neither Renewable Energy World nor the QDR mentions how much camelina-based jet fuel costs. Hold on to your (toilet) seat! According to today’s ClimateWire (subscription required), the price is $65.00 per gallon. That’s about 30 times more expensive than commercial jet fuel.

A quote from the NYT article:

The report also argued that most alternative-fuel technologies were unproven, too expensive or too far from commercial scale to meet the military’s needs over the next decade.

In particular, the report argued that the Defense Department was spending too much time and money exploring experimental biofuels derived from sources like algae or the flowering plant camelina, and that more focus should be placed on energy efficiency as a way of combating greenhouse gas emissions.

The report urged Congress to reconsider the military’s budget for alternative-fuel projects. But if such fuels are to be pursued, the report concluded, the most economic, environmentally sound and near-term candidate would be a liquid fuel produced using a combination of coal and biomass, as well as some method for capturing and storing carbon emissions released during production.

Neither the biofuel industry nor the military was happy with the report. A military energy-czar wrote (in EENews) that:

We have been engaged with the biofuels industry.We know what they are capable of doing, and we are confident they will be able to deliver the fuels at the quantities and at the price point we need,” he said. The Navy is calling for 8 million barrels of biofuel per year by 2020, he said.

Eight million gallons by 2020 isn’t exactly an ambitious goal, as the U.S. produced over 10 billion gallons of ethanol (which, admittedly, is a “mature” technology relative to the fuels the military is experimenting with). If that is their end goal they will likely achieve it, but it would also represent an insignificant amount of total fuel consumption at present rates.

Here is a link to the report.