Inside the Navy
Debate centers on economic feasibility
Navy, RAND Spar Over Utility Of Service's Focus On Biofuels
By Andrew Burt, Feb. 14, 2011
A top Navy energy official and a senior researcher at the RAND Corp. sparred last week over the Navy's bet on hydro-renewable biofuels to shape the services alternative energy efforts.
The dispute had been simmering since RAND, a nonprofit research institution, published a report on the military's focus on biofuels late last month. The report, requested by Congress, bluntly concluded that -- despite the mammoth amount of money all the services have dedicated toward developing alternative sources of fuel -- "there is no direct benefit to the Department of Defense or the services from using alternative fuels rather than petroleum-derived fuels."
The Navy has been a leader among the services in the push for alternative energy, with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus outlining wide-ranging goals in October 2009, the boldest of which aims to derive half of the Navy's total energy consumption from alternative sources by 2020.
These efforts have largely been focused on developing a certification process for biofuels, setting the standards for new sources of energy and letting industry meet those requirements. Biofuels -- fuels derived from organic sources like camelina or foodstocks -- can be blended with petroleum-based fuels, or even used as a complete replacement further down the road. The Navy's current plans call for using a blend that mixes half of each.
Speaking at a conference in Washington Feb. 9, James Bartis, who coauthored the study, reiterated the report's criticism of the Navy's efforts.
"Our bottom line on alternative fuels is they do offer major national benefits . . . but they don't offer appreciable direct military benefits."
Such benefits, said Bartis, should focus on answering the question: "Do they allow our troops to fight more effectively?" The answer he posited was a resounding no.
The brunt of Bartis' criticism focused on the economic feasibility of the large-scale biofuel production required to meet the Navy's energy needs.
"The challenge is not technical viability -- all these things can be produced and used in weapons systems -- the challenge is in demonstrating affordability and environmental production," Bartis said.
The land that would have to be used to generate the new biostocks, for example, would be cleared from unused land or generated through areas used to produce other crops. In each case, Bartis claimed that the adverse impact of such change is wide-reaching and has not been significantly considered by the services. Producing 1 percent of the U.S. oil demand through camelina-based biofuel would require "an area equal to 10 percent of U.S. croplands," according to Bartis.
Navy officials, however, have been equally blunt in criticizing Bartis' views, and in a speech immediately following Bartis', Thomas Hicks, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, proved no exception.
Hicks placed the RAND report among "a very small minority who say that biofuels won't be at a scale or at a price point that meets our military needs."
That minority, Hicks insisted, is wrong.
"The data suggests that biofuels can scale to the quantity needed without impacting food availability," he said, highlighting the efforts of venture capitalists and alternative energy companies in developing the nascent biofuel industry. "More often than not, they are producing fuels that don't compete for food, that don't overly burden water supplies, and that minimize direct and indirect land-use changes."
According to Hicks, the Navy needs to provide industry with "a significant demand signal" in order to meet its ambitious energy goals, and that is exactly what the Navy is doing -- even if it is ahead of the curve.
Speaking with Inside the Navy after his presentation, Hicks stressed that the Navy's alternative energy efforts constituted a holistic approach, with the RAND study taking an overly narrow view of those efforts.
"Our view is there's two parts to this," he said. "There's being more efficient in the energy that we do use and [there is] looking at what remains and using alternative sources of fuel." This combination "has an impact on our strategic implications and improves our tactical warfighting capabilities."
According to numbers cited by Hicks, the Navy accounts for about .6 percent of total U.S. petroleum consumption per year.