The Defense Department’s Role As Clean Technology Leader

by | Jun 10, 2011

With consumers once again paying $4.00 for a gallon of gasoline, everyone understands energy independence as a pocketbook issue. But energy independence is also a national security issue. The military is a small but significant consumer of fuel – our troops, their trucks, ships and airplanes, use close to 2 percent of the nation’s energy on an annual basis. The military is therefore as much at the mercy of high oil and gasoline prices as the average consumer.

To carry out military or humanitarian missions around the world, American forces require reliable fuel supplies and secure supply lines, which add to the costs of their fuel use. Fuel efficiency and access to fuel supplies in friendly countries around the world are therefore important “force multipliers,” because they increase the military’s ability to operate where needed and can reduce the number of combat forces necessary to protect energy supply lines. Advanced biofuels represent the best option for meeting military needs while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense purchased about $16 billion worth of fuel, equal to 119 million barrels of oil. As many have noted, that oil often comes from regions of the world that are not U.S. military allies. As a result, the DOD has set goals to reduce its energy demand and increase its use of renewable energy – acquiring 50 percent of supplies from renewable sources that meet U.S. greenhouse gas emission initiatives by 2020. The Navy, for one, plans to deploy a Great Green Fleet powered by renewable and low-carbon energy by 2016.

But the Navy does not want to sail its Great Green Fleet with a long convoy of tankers providing the fuel, as Navy Director for Operational Energy Chris Tindal noted this month in a speech at BIO’s World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology in Toronto. This would recreate the need to protect a long supply line – a disadvantage similar to the current reliance on oil. According to Tindal, “We want to be able to pull into different ports around the globe and be able to refuel on biofuels.” One potential solution – tactical biorefineries can be established in strategic locations, such as Hawaii, making use of local feedstocks to produce sustainable biofuels for the military.

The Navy and Air Force have both worked with biofuel suppliers to conduct tests and certify that biofuels meet exacting requirements for performance and cost. For instance, renewable fuel producer Sustainable Oils of Montana supplied camelina-based bio-jet fuel for a 2010 test flight of the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 “Green Hornet” aircraft. The 50-50 blend of camelina-based and petroleum-based jet fuel successfully powered the plane at supersonic speeds. And Solazyme – a California algae oil producer –delivered to the Navy 20,000 gallons of jet and diesel from algae, the largest amount of advanced biofuel ever produced. The Army has tested a garbage-to-energy tactical biorefinery at an operating base in Iraq that used a hybrid of gasification and fermentation to produce a mix of fuels to run an electrical generator.

While advanced biofuel companies are successfully demonstrating the technology in small projects to solve military challenges, there is also a potential civilian benefit. Though the U.S. military represents only 2 percent of the U.S. petroleum market, it possesses sufficient purchasing power to drive development of new fuels in sufficient quantities at the right price. As Tindal noted in his speech, the military can help biotech and algae biofuel companies scale up their technologies and drive prices down by acting as an early adopter. The private commercial airline industry and the military collectively use 1.5 million barrels of jet fuel per day.

There are legislative efforts that would help the military become the technology leader in scaling up commercial production of sustainable biofuels, such as algae. The legislation, which BIO supports, allows the Department of Defense to engage in long-term contracts for purchasing biofuels. These contracts would provide significant market stability for small companies trying to commercialize new technologies and would help them to attract private investment to build the small biorefineries in strategic locations around the world that the military needs.

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