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Navy pursuing biofuel development

By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 24, 2011

NAPLES, Italy — The Navy will need about 8 million barrels of biofuel a year by 2020, when the sea service hopes to get half its energy needs from this and other alternative sources, such as solar power, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said this week.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced plans for joint investments by the Navy and the departments of agriculture and energy of $510 million into alternative fuel sources, intended to help build the biofuel industry in the United States.

“While the Navy and the Marine Corps would be the first group to provide a market, obviously the goal would be to make it competitive with petroleum, to get it out to the commercial sector,” Mabus said in a conference call with reporters to give further details of the initiative.

The Navy will invest $170 million over three years in the program. In light of pending defense cuts — the military is bracing for cuts of $400 billion in the next decade — Mabus said the Navy’s share of the investment would come from shifting money already allocated to research and development.

The combined $510 million investment is to funnel money to private companies to build new biofuel processing plants or to retro-fit existing locations, Mabus said. The Navy will sign contracts with the private sector to provide a base market for biofuels with the hope that commercial consumers will follow.

Companies vying for the money will have to ensure that no cropland used for food is sacrificed or repurposed, Mabus said.

Any biofuel produced must be usable in existing engines, meaning no alterations to engines are required, he said.

The Navy already has used a blend of a plant-based biofuel and regular jet fuel to fly an F-18 Hornet and other aircraft.

The “Great Green Fleet,” a carrier strike group where each non-nuclear vessel is powered by biofuels, will deploy by 2016.

“We’re moving on a number of different fronts,” Mabus said.

America imports more than $300 billion in crude oil annually.

The U.S. produces 10 percent of all petroleum worldwide but consumes roughly a quarter of the global supply, according to a 2010 Navy energy report.

“We simply buy too much petroleum from potentially or actually volatile places,” Mabus said.

But not everyone is sold on biofuel as a viable substitute for America’s oil needs.

A study released this year by the Rand Corporation noted that the available supply of biofuel feedstocks will likely limit production to no more than 30,000 barrels per day.

“Because of limited production potential, fuels derived from animal fats, waste oils and seed oils will never have a significant role in the larger domestic commercial marketplace,” according to the Rand report.

Another concern is the affordability of these nascent biofuels and their greenhouse gas emissions, the report states.

Producing 200,000 barrels of biofuel a day — roughly 1 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption — from a source like the camelina plant would require an area equal to about 10 percent of all cropland currently under cultivation in the U.S., according to the RAND report.

Mabus dismissed the RAND report’s findings Monday, calling it “a very flawed report” and saying that RAND never talked to the Navy about it. But he admitted biofuels are not yet cost-competitive with oil.

“While it’s not a competitive rate yet, simply because it’s not a big enough market, we believe that if you do create this market, which we are capable of doing, the price will be competitive with petroleum,” he said.

Geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

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