A recent report by the prestigious RAND Corporation appears to put a spike through the Obama Administration’s plans for biofuels. The report focuses specifically on U.S. Navy programs to develop a range of biofuels but has clear implications for the overall policy. A secondary issue raised by the report is the advisability of having the Department of Defense investing scarce S&T dollars in an enterprise that should be left, if it is to be done by government at all, to the Department of Energy.
The RAND report is devastating to the Navy’s biofuels effort. It concludes that the Navy will receive “no direct benefit” from its current efforts. In part, this is because biofuels have inherently less energy density than fossil fuels. More significantly, the Navy’s effort is focused largely on trying to prove the viability of biofuel generation processes where there are great uncertainties regarding their technical and operational viability. The study observes that “most of the defense department’s efforts in alternative fuel development are geared toward proving technical viability rather than establishing a process that yields demonstrably affordable and environmentally sound production. The latter two components are notoriously hard to accomplish.”
The Navy has been pursuing development of conventional seed-based biofuels and also the much more experimental algae-based fuels process. Conventional biofuels are on the market today, albeit with heavy government subsidies. Yes, it is possible to produce large quantities of ethanol from conventional feed stocks. But, as the study notes there are profound problems associated with conventional biofuel production that may well outweigh any benefits. “Too much emphasis is focused on seed-derived oils that displace food production, have very limited production potential and may cause greenhouse gas emissions well above those of conventional petroleum fuels.”
Algae-based fuels may offer greater promise but this is really a science project that will take decades to reach commercialization, if that is even possible. There are efforts to develop bioreactors that can use alternative feed stocks but these are in essence trial projects that have not been proven to scale to the production levels needed by the Navy.
While the Navy response to the RAND study certainly was acerbic it was not very relevant. Contrary to what the Navy said in response, the RAND study did not say that conventional biofuels were infeasible; rather, RAND argued they were impractical, uneconomical and not necessarily in the interests of the environment. The Navy response offered no information to the contrary.
The RAND study raises a larger question: why is the Department of Defense even involved in the development of biofuels? The department but particularly the Navy should stop acting as a shill for the administration’s pie-in-the-sky renewable energy agenda. The military may be the largest single user of fossil fuels in the United States but it still accounts for only two percent of the total fossil fuel consumption in this country. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on biofuels how about using that money to improve the military’s energy efficiency or investing more in practical forms of renewable energy such as solar or wind?
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