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By Robert Rapier on Feb 19, 2013 with 10 responses

Exclusive: U.S. Air Force Report to Congress Bashes Navy’s Biofuels Program

The Navy’s Biofuels Program


Sailors assigned to Riverine Group 1 conduct maneuvers aboard Riverine Command Boat (Experimental) (RCB-X) at Naval Station Norfolk. The RCB-X is powered by an alternative fuel blend of 50 percent algae-based and 50 percent NATO F-76 fuels to support the secretary of the Navy’s efforts to reduce total energy consumption on naval ships. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gregory N. Juday).

In 2010 I conducted an interview with Tom Hicks, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy). During the interview, Tom described the Navy’s efforts in pushing for widespread availability of biofuels for Naval operations. He stated that sourcing alternative energy is a top priority for the Navy, and would enhance its war-fighting capabilities. He said the Navy sees itself in a leadership role in driving a transition to “homegrown, secure, independent sources of fuel.”

The goal, as described by Tom, is for biofuels to make a major contribution toward the fuel needs of the Navy by 2020. The Navy has embarked upon an initiative called the “Great Green Fleet” in which they would deploy a strike group on all alternative fuels by 2016. By 2020, the goal is for 50% of all of the Navy’s energy consumption to come from alternative sources. In pursuit of this initiative, the Navy is doing research, and testing and certifying all of their engines on renewable fuels.

The Critics

The program has had its critics. A 2011 congressionally-mandated study by the Rand Corporation suggested that renewable isn’t necessarily better for the military. The study concluded “There is no direct benefit to the Department of Defense or the services from using alternative fuels rather than petroleum-derived fuels.” Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, stated that he disagreed “vehemently” with the report. One of the reasons for this conclusion is that the military is near the front of the line if fuel scarcity became a problem, and thus they do not need to push biofuels.

Other critics have suggested that the Navy is wasting taxpayer dollars on a program that should fall under the domain of the Department of Energy. In a July 27, 2012 letter to Secretary Mabus, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated that the navy should stick to building and operating ships. McCain wrote “You are the Secretary of the Navy, not the Secretary of Energy.”

Air Force vs. Navy

On March 1st, 2013, the US Air Force journal — Strategic Studies Quarterly — will publish an article highly critical of the Navy’s efforts. This periodical is sent in hard copy to Congress and top military leaders. The article is entitled Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels and will become available online about 25 Feb at

A longer version of this paper is available at the end of this article.

The article is incredibly in-depth, and raises a number of points that I have not seen raised elsewhere. For instance, one of the selling points that has been used to justify the Navy’s efforts is that if fuel could be produced locally, it would cut down on casualties. In Part 3 of my interview with Tom Hicks, he stated:

And just to give you a sense – and this is based on Army study – but for every 24 fuel convoys that we bring into the theater, we have one casualty. So that’s one soldier, one marine, killed or wounded who is not otherwise fighting the fight or engaged with the local population to build a nation. That’s a big part of what is driving this as well, that there is a human cost to this; a big price to pay and we are very concerned about that.

CAPT T. A. “Ike” Kiefer, who is with Department of Strategy at the USAF Air War College — and is the author of this new report — disputes that. In the report, he notes that in the case of lower-energy density biofuels:

Moving a given quantity of energy around a battlefield as biodiesel instead of petroleum diesel would require 8% more tanker trucks, ethanol or bio-oil 65% more, liquid hydrogen 280% more. Substituting biobutanol, biogas, ammonia, fuel cells, capacitors, or batteries in place of hydrocarbons on the battlefield would require even longer convoys that expose more Soldiers and Marines to enemy attack, not fewer.

Energy Return on Investment

Kiefer argues that certain deficiencies preclude biofuels from replacing petroleum as a national-scale transportation fuel. In his report, biofuels are evaluated with respect to energy return on investment (EROI), energy density, water footprint, food competition, environmental footprint, and lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The author argues that biofuels will harm national and global security more than they will help.

One of the more interesting arguments in the paper concerns the EROI needed by modern society. The author gives some historical examples from ancient Rome, and then argues that when the EROI of society is below 6/1, “industrial civilization is locked into a death spiral where an ever increasing fraction of its economic output (GDP) is spent on energy at the cost of an eroding standard of living.” When the EROI drops below 3/1, he states that we can either find sources with higher energy returns, or “decay into a pre-industrial civilization with lower energy needs.”

This argument is significant because almost all biofuels are produced at an EROI of less than 3/1. Certainly — as I have noted many times — as the EROI declines, society will have to devote more time, effort, and energy (literally) into producing usable energy for society. The lower the EROI, the greater the input from society in order to produce the same amount of energy.

The Costs

Table 1 of the report will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows:

Department of Defense Fuel Purchases

When it was first announced that the Navy had spent $8.5 million for 20,000 gallons of algae-derived fuel from Solazyme, I reported on this story in U.S. Navy Pays Big Bucks for Biofuels. Following the article, Solazyme CEO Jonathan Wolfson contacted me to clarify that part of that contract was for research and development. Wolfson wrote:

I wanted to clarify that the $8.5 million contract is actually an R&D contract that also includes a fuel delivery. Since that funding is directed to R&D and includes a delivery of fuel, it is inaccurate to divide the contract price by the number of gallons delivered to get to a dollar per gallon figure. We also announced a new contract with DoD and the Navy in September following on the heels of the successful delivery of the 20k gallon contract, which is also an R&D contract and includes a delivery of 150,000 gallons of fuel to the Navy. That contract is valued at a little over $10 million, but like the previous contract is not dividable into a per gallon price because of the R&D focus. Even though these contracts include R&D, you should also assume that the actual fuel production cost (which we do not publish), is currently above commercial costs.

However, as I noted at the time the fact that the Navy is spending millions funding this research is strong evidence that algal fuel can’t yet be produced at a competitive price — contrary to the claims of many hypesters.


The report is definitely worth a read. Even if you disagree with the premise, it is full of interesting historical tidbits. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but the author makes many strong points. In any event, the report will undoubtedly be used as additional ammunition against the Navy’s efforts to create a Great Green Fleet.

21st Century Snake Oil – Why the U.S. Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy… by

Link to Original Article: Exclusive: U.S. Air Force Report to Congress Bashes Navy’s Biofuels Program

By Robert Rapier

  1. By Edward Kerr on February 20, 2013 at 9:48 am


    As a long time proponent that oil from algae offers the best possibility of sustainable liquid fuel production, I find it interesting that the second round of purchases had dropped significantly in price (though I obviously have to admit that the price is still a little stiff). But surely by now you realize that fossil fuels cannot be the answer to the problem that they present. So, it looks like (even if the extinction scenario can be avoided-which it probably can’t) we are faced with “When the EROI drops below 3/1, he states that we can either find sources with higher energy returns, or decay into a per-industrial civilization with lower energy needs.”..

    When I suggest extinction this is what I’m referring to..{ }

    I’m still waiting for some astute mind to poke holes in this argument but none have come forth. I personally have tried to but cannot.

    Looks to me like humanity is truly stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”


    • By Robert Rapier on February 22, 2013 at 11:07 am

      “But surely by now you realize that fossil fuels cannot be the answer…”

      Ed, I knew that 8 years ago when I started writing about energy. That is, in fact, why I started writing about energy and is a central theme of my book: To argue that we must transition.


      • By Edward Kerr on February 22, 2013 at 6:40 pm

        And that’s why I continue to read your work…

  2. By newpapyrus on February 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Trying to find an alternative to a fossil fuel that mostly has to be imported and is also raising global sea levels and acidifying the ocean is an economic and ecological necessity. But the nuclear Navy should focus on using floating nuclear reactors for the production of carbon neutral jet fuel and diesel fuel or dimethyl ether rather than biofuels.

    Marcel F. Williams

  3. By IGimlet on February 21, 2013 at 6:18 am

    What I don’t understand about the USN strategy is how they expect to manage refueling on all the seven seas if it all needs to be shipped from the US. Aren’t supply lines an obvious vulnerability, completely obviated by nuclear and mostly manageable if burning marine diesel given the universal stocking of it at every major and medium port globally? In an actual conflict wouldn’t this supply lines issue be critical … not to mention time, labor and capital intensive?

  4. By Colin Murphy on February 21, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    Biofuels are obviously not a silver-bullet solution to climate and energy security problems, but the naysayers are too quick to dismiss them entirely. First, there is the assumption that engines must burn hydrotreated fuels and the hydrogen must come from natural gas. You can tune an internal combustion engine or turbine to burn basically anything you want. Second, you can reform hydrogen from biomass as well; several biomass gasification projects have constructed pilot-scale plants already which produce hydrogen-rich syngas as an intermediate step in the synthesis of other fuels. It’s not cost-effective, yet, but then, what technology is in the first 10 years?

    The bigger issue, in particular with the report from the Waterloo Complexity Institute, is that they evaluate biofuels and biomass utilization in a complete vacuum. They state, correctly, that plants sequester carbon from the atmosphere when they grow. Their conclusion is that we shouldn’t burn plants. The problem with this is that most of the carbon in plant matter returns to the atmosphere anyway, when it decomposes. The Waterloo report assumes that if we don’t burn biofuels, the carbon stays in solid form, essentially forever. In reality, most of it turns back to gas and a small fraction of it turns to methane, which is worse for climate change than carbon dioxide. Similarly, there is evidence that some of the nitrogen embodied in plants turns to nitrous oxide as it decomposes.

    The Waterloo report is completely correct in calling out corn ethanol as a terrible product and highlighting the need to more carefully consider soil carbon changes when evaluating biofuels. There are options, however, that allow biofuels to work over the long run and possibly sequester carbon in the soil through root growth. Miscanthus (elephant grass) and switchgrass both appear to offer this possibility.

  5. By Benjamin Cole on February 22, 2013 at 2:50 am

    For me, the compelling tidbit is that natural gas was converted to aviation kerosene at a cost of $3.41 a gallon.


    Friends, we have oceans of shale underneath our feet (pardon the bad pun).

    If Table 1 is accurate, the DoD bought more than 300,000 gallons—-at higher 2007 natural gas prices, btw—-for well under $3.50 a gallon. And that was a one-time purchase. My guess is that with time and regular purchases, a lower price would be negotiated.

    Am I missing something?

    I mean, shouldn’t the Navy be thinking “gas to liquids” if they wish to ensure a domestic supply?

    I rather strongly suspect the Navy-USDA biofuel programs are just more GOP-pink-o-rural-farm subsidies, And Pentagon patronage.

  6. By wstephens on February 26, 2013 at 9:36 am

    If electricity was free (i.e. from a magic fusion reactor) then what would synthetic fuels cost? Nothing? Or is that besides the point, is the problem really the rate that synthetic fuels can be created, rather than the energy cost per se?

  7. By ben on February 26, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    …and partly why I, too, read his ords to the wise. More than anything, however, is a rock-solid independence of thought that separates clear-eyed, objective-minded analysis from the jingositic cheerleading that we hear all-too-often out of the so-called “experts.”

    Your willingness to provide visibility to the current USAF-sponsored report, Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels, is most welcome. This is particularly true given a bit of “leaning in” by colleague(s) at Energy Trends. The folks around Beltway need precious little reinforcement in making their pitch for taxpayer resources to support their interests. Only no-nonsense assessments about the various claims coming out of the five-sided building and its range of surrogates will result in sound and sustainable policies. There’s a penchant to look to DOD-sponsored R&D as the principal risk-mitigation tool for too many projects begging a greater measure of discipline about
    no-BS deliverables. From my own experiences with those who’ve populated the
    E-ring over on the west bank of the Potomac, there’s too often meaningful interaction with independent-minded expertise vis-a-vis the ever-present influence of commecial allies itching for an opportunity to serve “national interests.”

    What was that noteworthy quote by the 19th century US Senator from Missouri, Carl Shurz?
    “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
    (Feb 29, 1872)

    Thanks for the integrity. Much like the Visa advertisement–priceless!

  8. By ben on February 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    errancy noted “……there’s too often [little] meaningful interaction….”
    Indeed, there is often a complete absence of opinions dissenting from the company line emananting from the West Wing via OSD. Yes, civilian control of the military is a timeless principle of our Republic. It dates back to General Washington’s surrender of his sword over in the historic Maryland State House in Annapolis. Alas, we would do well to remember that these elected officials sometimes subordinate their high calling to the petty calculus of a road to re-election made smooth with the merchant’s universal lubricant.

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