Sunday, May 11, 2014

The US military and biofuels, again


I am back, kind of.

After reading two recent reports on the US military and biofuels I felt obliged to write again and continue my criticisms.

The first report provides a solid background:  Federal Activities Support Development and Usage, but Long-term Commercial Viability Hinges on Market Factors, GAO-14-407, May 7, 2014.
 
It reminds us the U.S. Navy’s aim of using about 336-million gallons of alternative fuels annually by 2020. And the Air Force’s goal of increasing the use of drop-in alternative jet-fuel blends for non-contingency operations to 50 percent of total consumption by 2025 (it currently consumes more or less 2.5 billion gallons of jet fuel each year).

It also states that the US Department of Defense purchased about 1.5-million gallons of alternative jet fuels to conduct the department’s testing and approval activities from fiscal years 2007 to 2013 at a total cost of almost $40 million (In fact, the correct number is more than $70 million, not adjusted for inflation).
More money will be spent in the future. USDA, DOE, and the Navy intend to contribute $170 million each over 3 years, for an aggregate total of $510 million for biofuel efforts. DOD plans to issue solicitations in 2014 for the purchase of about 80-million gallons of any combination of jet and marine diesel fuels in 2015 that are blended with at least 10 percent alternative fuels. USDA will contribute up to about $161 million.

The second report is titled “Green Peace: Can Biofuels Accelerate Energy Security?” (JFQ 73, 2nd Quarter 2014), by Commander John E. Gay, Deputy Public Affairs Officer of United States Fleet Forces Command, USN.
A well written article (despite some outdated data and missing facts) criticizing the US military’s biofuels efforts. It is very unfortunate that he does not mention at all any article of Captain T.A. ‘Ike’ Kiefer, for instance, Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuel. (see a summary at my blog Twenty-First Century Snake Oil and also here).

Commander Gay reiterates that “it is unlikely that the costs of biofuels will ever become more competitive than fossil fuels. Biofuels do not offer the same energy density as petroleum-based fuels. Ethanol contains 33 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline and biodiesels contain about 8 percent less energy than petroleum-based diesel fuels. Lower energy density has a direct negative effect on battlefield energy security. That means operational vehicles using biofuels will travel less distance per tank of fuel, thus requiring more fuel to accomplish the same mission. This results in additional logistics requirements in the form of more fuel that will have to be delivered to the troops.”
He argues that biofuels are counterproductive to national energy security for four primary reasons. (1) the cost of biofuels is directly linked to the cost of petroleum. (2) they are not currently available in the quantities needed to meet military demand and it is unlikely the industry will ever be capable of producing a sufficient supply. (3) their energy density is significantly less than fossil fuels, and less energy density means less fuel efficiency. Less fuel efficiency means more fuel convoys will be needed to meet the military’s mission, increasing costs and risks to Service members.(4) the greater demand for biofuels feedstock will foster global threats and as a result may increase the likelihood that the US may have to deploy forces to new threat areas.

He also poses a good question “should the military—the branch of government responsible for national security—be responsible for investing its limited resources as a venture capitalist to jumpstart a biofuels industry and be forced to purchase fuels at 10 times the cost of readily available petroleum-based fuels? Not only does this not make good economic sense, but it also puts our national security at risk.”
We already have heard plenty of times these sorts of questions. What happened? Nothing! It seems that something making economic sense is often considered nonsense by the DoD. Examples are many. For instance, the US armed forces spent billions of dollars on military uniforms (around $300 million on camouflage uniforms in 2011 alone). The Economist published a nice article on 12 April 2014 with subtitle “expense and stupidity too big to camouflage”. Are biofuels much different?