The United States Navy will use a biofuel blend to fuel both aircraft and warship during a Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the globe’s largest naval war games, next year near Hawaii.
The Navy and Department of Agriculture, which together have worked on biofuels research since early 2010, announced on Monday that 450,000 gallons of biofuels will in part propel a Navy carrier group next summer.
The contract, to which the Defense Logistics Agency agreed last week, is the largest federal government purchase of biofuels in history at a US$12 million price tag. Two firms benefit: Solazyme, a renewable oil and bio-products company, and Dynamic Fuels LLC, a joint venture between the chicken processing giant Tyson Foods and Syntroleum.
The fuels will be part of a 50-50 blend with petroleum based diesel and aviation fuel. The “drop-in” fuels can work without any engine modification, and met the Navy’s criteria that the fuels come from sources that will not affect the country’s food supply. Solazyme’s diesel is sourced from algae, while Dynamic’s is manufactured from non-food grade animal plants.
At first glance, the deal appears expensive with a total cost of about US$26 a gallon for the actual biofuels. By the time they are blended with conventional diesel, the cost will be about US$15 a gallon. In context, however, it is a tiny sliver of the federal defense budget, which in 2012 will total anywhere from US$1.30 to 1.415 trillion, including interest payments on debut incurred from past wars. Furthermore, the cost of vehicle fuel can run up as high as $400 a gallon when costs from transportation and security to remote regions are factored. Air conditioning, in fact, may cost up to US$20 billion annually in the American military’s Iraq and Afghanistan operations. Meanwhile, tax breaks and oil industry subsidies run from US$4 to $12 billion a year, depending on how the numbers are crunched.
So why should the military bother with biofuels and other forms of clean energy anyway? For a host of regions: protecting its budget in the event that fossil face fuels spike again; ensuring that petroleum-based fuels are plentiful for the military operations that are the most crucial; and as US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus stated at a press conference, renewables can lessen America’s dependence on foreign fuels, too. Overall, the military is far ahead of the politicians on this issue.
The nascent American clean energy sector can benefit as well. While the trick with biofuels is that they require reliable sources of feedstocks in order to scale, these companies need reliable customers. Even with looming threats of budget cuts, the US military would still be a very reliable customer if these technologies can succeed. Military technology also trickles down to the civilian world, too; in addition to the Internet, GPS and composite materials, aviation companies could win in the long run if they had a less volatile fuel supply. Of course, the question of growing food versus fuel needs to be addressed as well. Watch for more announcements similar to this week’s in the coming years.
Leon Kaye also dedicates this article to the men and women in the military on this 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.