In a noteworthy article for Foreign Policy magazine, US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reveals how the US military is cutting its dependence on fossil fuels and making a great push for “advanced biofuels”. It is doing this for fear of falling behind in the “eco-arms race”. Will the US military’s program provide the boost the second-generation biofuels so badly needs?
Photo: Exercise of the Green Fleet of the US Navy
Can the US Navy win the eco-arms race, asks US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in a recent article in Foreign Policy?
His answer: we have to, if we are not to be “left behind” in the global race for innovation in alternative energy.
I have to confess that I find it pretty discouraging to be confronted with all this energy “arms race” stuff, which I don’t believe in. Nevertheless, this is an important article, as it’s from the horse’s mouth. And like it or not, the energy strategy of the US is of concern to everyone involved in the global energy sector. Or maybe I should say – the energy strategy of the US military – but is there a difference? It is instructive to read what Mabus believes is the “first mission” of the US Navy, namely: “to protect our nation by assuring stability around the globe”. He won’t be out of a job soon.
Well, we knew that anyway, but what is interesting here is how this military strategy translates into energy policy at this moment. According to Mabus, the US military is engaged in a wide-ranging effort to reduce its fossil fuel use and boost renewable energy, in particular to replace oil use by biofuels. I did not know this, but “advanced biofuels” have even been declared “essential to national defense” by president Obama. Not that surprising, really, when you realise the Department of Defense spends, as Mabus notes, $15 to $20 billion a year on fuel.
Mabus writes that in March 2011, Obama “directed the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and the Navy to partner with the private sector to accelerate a domestic market for advanced (i.e. second generation, non-food based) biofuels by providing expertise, financial investment, and purchasing power to encourage development that is cost-competitive with petroleum.” The three departments commited up to $510 million to “fund the construction or retrofit of multiple, geographically dispersed, commercial-scale refineries”.
“Biofuels will be competitive with conventional fossil fuels by the end of this administration”
By now, four companies have risen to the challenge and are building plants to produce more than 150 million gallons of “drop-in, militarily compatible biofuels each year at an average price of well below $4 per gallon”, i.e. competitive with fuel prices at the pump. Mabus does not say who these companies are or how far they have progressed in their efforts. He does, however, declare that he believes “biofuels will be competitive with conventional fossil fuels by the end of this administration”.
At the same time, he adds that the costs of the program should not be the prime concern: the security of the nation, he suggests, is more important than mere costs. He even makes this odd assertion: “If concerns over cost and fear of change had carried the day, we would still be using sails.” Does Mabus believe that if the Navy had not decided to switch from sailing ships to steam ships we would all be still using sailing ships?
What is also noteworthy is that with this program the US Navy is, as Mabus puts it, “seeking fuel alternatives that do not require modifications to existing platforms or supply chains”. This means natural gas (shale gas) is not a candidate here. Mabus says that “the 50/50 blends of biofuel we’ve tested work in all our aircraft and ships, enabling us to meet our goal to successfully operate an entire carrier strike group (the ‘Great Green Fleet’) on alternatives during the Rim of the Pacific Exercise in July 2012.” In addition, Mabus notes that the program requires that the biofuels that are produced “do not compete with food crops or exceed legal carbon emissions”.
In other words, the Great Fleet has not been Greenwashed, it really is Green. That may be a comfort for those who get bombed by the US Navy: at least they know they are not causing climate change in the process.
For those who want to dig into this subject from a policy point of view, I can recommend a book that will soon be published by Alexander Mirtchev: the Alternative Energy Megatrend. This is a specialist and truly exhaustive study of what the steady growth of renewable energies will mean for the geopolitical relations in the world.
As to the general situation in the second-generation biofuels sector, according to this report in MIT Technology Review, cellulosic ethanol production in the US has taken some bad hits. The Guardian on the other hand reports that there are “super-efficient algae” on the horizon. It does make you wonder what the US Navy’s biofuels program will conjure out of the hat.