Military and Energy: The Reality Checker

This
week Marketplace airs a special series on the U.S. military and energy, and the
quest
to "unleash us from the tether of fuel."

There's a lot of buzz about biofuels these days. The Pentagon wants to buy lots, to cut fossil-fuel demand. Industry groups and companies see the military market as a great opportunity to sell large amounts and, in the process,  push prices down.

Last January, a report by the Rand Corporation think tank interrupted the party. Among its findings: "prospects for commercial production of appreciable amounts of
alternative fuels suitable for military applications within the next
decade are highly uncertain." Q & A on the report here.

Industry pounced, as did the Navy. They argued Rand didn't do its homework. Much of the heat went to Rand lead author James Bartis. From my interview with Bartis:

The military is focusing much effort on fuel made from seeds. What's the potential? (listen to an audio excerpt)

"One of the obvious
ways to make these distillate fuels is to use seeds. And you can take the oil from a seed, which is generally a lipid and has some oxygen in it. And you can treat it
with hydrogen so that you get a hydrocarbon which looks very much like a normal fuel."

"And we looked in our study at seed oils. And we found that in the United States there is very limited
ability to supply significant amounts of fuel from seeds. And that's because the yield per
acre is fairly small. A seed is only a small portion of a plant."

"Basically we found that to supply one percent of US energy
consumption would require 10 percent of all the croplands in the United States. So our conclusion was that seed oils are a dead end. That  doesn't mean certain firmss cannot make a handsome
profit making seed oils. It means that from a national point of view we should not be focusing
federal dollars and federal support to promoting this kind of fuel. We should
focus on fuels that have much greater potential."

OK, how about fuel from algae?  (listen to an audio excerpt)

"We found photosynthetic roots-to-algae is a research
topic and not an emerging fuel option at this time. We are very enthusiastic about the prospects here. But
over the next 10 years this is not an emerging fuel option."

"Now there's another way to go, which does not involve sunlight. Basically you take microbes or algae and you feed them sugars. And they convert those sugars into these oils. And that brings us back to the food versus energy problem."

"We are pretty far from understanding at all whether algae will
ever be a commercially viable fuel. So why are we testing it in our high
performance weapons systems when it's so far away?"

Bottom line here?

Listen to the audio excerpt

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...