From Foreign Fuels to Biofuels

How the Military is Helping to Lead the Transition

In June, a Gulfstream G450 made the first trans-Atlantic flight powered by biofuel. Two weeks later international aviation regulators approved commercial use of renewable fuel. On Labor Day, one of the pilots on the Blue Angels team performed in a plane with a 50 percent biofuel mix. In addition, Forbes Magazine has reported that “aviation could be the first global industry to kick fossil fuel addiction.”

The Blue Angels’ demonstration is particularly important because the Department of Defense (DoD) has taken a lead role in transitioning from being one

of the single largest global consumers of fossil fuels to a pioneer in the field of alternative fuels. At a White House briefing I attended this spring as part of a delegation with Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), assistant secretaries from both DoD and the Department of Energy outlined the importance of developing new sources of energy.

The reasons became even clearer at an E2 panel discussion in October. The U.S. economy as a whole spends $350 billion annually on foreign oil, and $11 billion for military use of liquid fuels. According to retired Admiral Len Hering, former head of the Navy’s Southwest Region, one Marine is either wounded or killed for every 50 convoys carrying fuel into Afghanistan, and 60 percent of U.S. casualties are directly associated with the movement of petroleum, oils and lubricants to satisfy their energy needs in support of forward operating bases.

In addition, if the U.S. is reliant on imported oil, foreign policy will likely result in the nation protecting those sources of fuel. If we switch to clean new fuel sources within our borders, U.S. foreign policy could be much different.

With the DoD’s concern that carbon emissions from fossil fuels are also causing changes to the climate that could reduce water supply, decrease food production, increase flooding, and result in sea level rise, military leaders in the U.S. and abroad are preparing for the possibility of the displacement of entire populations, which could create regional political instability.

“…One marine is either wounded or killed for every 50
convoys carrying fuel into Afghanistan …”

Even without climate change impacts, competition for energy and water resources are expected to escalate. According to Admiral Hering, growth in China’s demand for natural resources is progressing at a rate six-and-half times faster than it did in the West during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The trend appears unsustainable. Historically, resource conflicts have been the inevitable result of scarcity and can be expected as a result of the world’s costly dependence on fossil fuels.

In recognition that fossil fuel dependence is clearly a serious liability for national security, military logistics and the U.S. economy, all four arms of the military have adopted measures to reduce fossil fuel use and find low carbon alternatives. For example, the Navy plans to meet 50 percent of its energy requirements with alternative sources by 2020. Since 1985, the DoD has reduced building energy consumption by 30 percent, and its energy investment is expected to increase to more than $10 billion annually by 2030.

SANDAG Chief Economist Marney Cox believes the commercial market for biofuels will develop like the wireless market, another technology that was developed initially to fulfill the needs of the military and subsequently was adapted for civilian use.

Stephen Mayfield directs the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology and is the chief scientific advisor for Sapphire Energy, a leading U.S. biofuels firm. Mayfield says the Navy has developed and transferred energy technologies to the civilian sector since the 1800s. “The Navy was the driving force for conversion of wind to coal to power ships, from coal to oil, and from oil to nuclear,” he says. “I believe the Navy will also lead the military and the nation in transitioning from oil to biofuels.”

Why is the DoD so important to this effort? Mayfield sums it up in this way: “Unlike traditional energy companies, the military doesn’t have a financial interest in keeping the status quo. As a result, the DoD, and perhaps the Navy most of all, have a global and historic view that allows them to understand and to clearly say with some urgency that we need to get to biofuels and we need to do it now.”

This article first appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Air2Air Magazine.


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