Guest column

Biofuels yield military, economic dividends

By JAMES MARVIN | | Published: November 21, 2012

Every day around the world, technologies that are developed by the military help our troops carry out missions that keep America safe.

But beyond strengthening our national security and giving Americans peace of mind, military investments in technology yield another dividend — economic growth. And a new report from Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) shows just how big that growth can be.

According to the report, the military’s advanced biofuels initiatives will directly generate between $10 billion and $20 billion of economic activity in the private sector by 2020. Military biofuels investments also will create more than 14,000 new, unique jobs in diverse sectors in eight years.

Farmers will grow crops that provide biofuels feedstock but don’t compete with our food supply. Construction workers will help build new biofuels plants, or retrofit old oil refineries. And truck drivers and railroad engineers will transport fuel to military bases all across the U.S.

The Navy and Air Force have mapped out the most ambitious biofuels plans. Their goal is to replace half their consumption of petroleum-based liquid fuels with alternative fuels over the next decade — requiring about 770 million gallons of biofuels production capacity per year, the E2 report found.

To meet this target, the nascent biofuels industry will have to expand. This will be an expensive effort, and initial investments by the military will create market certainty, eventually attracting private capital that will finance biorefinery construction and drive development of new technologies.

When the industry’s foundation is built, the military’s return on investment will be profound — a new source of clean and domestic fuel for our troops.

As a military veteran, I understand the Department of Defense rationale. When I was on active duty, I witnessed firsthand the tremendous amount of resources our military dedicates to ensure that commerce flows freely through critical choke points like the Strait of Hormuz, Singapore, Malacca, and the waters connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

Advanced biofuels — which are produced from everything from algae to wood chips — can free up these military resources and work to increase operational capability. This not only gives our troops more flexibility, it also protects the Pentagon’s budget from costly swings in the price of oil.

Advanced “drop-in” biofuels are a proven technology. They’ve already shown they can power ships, planes and armored vehicles with minimal engine modifications. Last summer, for example, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier took on 900,000 gallons of a 50 percent biofuel blend in a successful demonstration in the Pacific Ocean.

Biofuels have also powered most of the Air Force’s major aircraft — the A-10, C-17, F-15 and F-22.

But there are skeptics, and the oil industry is quick to defend its monopoly as the only source of fuel to the military.

Some in Congress have also resorted to misleading, shortsighted rhetoric designed to score political points. Their comments dismiss strong recommendations from senior military leaders who say advanced biofuels improve our national security.

There is no denying that change is difficult. As Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who’s a supporter of biofuels, has noted, whenever the military has changed energy sources, people have doubted those new technologies.

“And every time, they’ve been wrong,” said Mabus, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

More than just the military can benefit from a switch to cleaner, domestic fuels. The potential for biofuels growth in the civil aviation sector is huge as well.

The innovation and subsequent commercialization of new technologies are economic roles the military has played before. Radar, GPS and the Internet are all part of a long tradition of DOD initiatives that have had both military and economic benefits. Biofuels are the latest example. The military is carrying out its mission to protect our national interests. And at the same time, it’s demonstrating that investments in visionary technology yield strong returns.

James Marvin, a former Navy SEAL, retired from the Navy in 2009 after 20 years of service. He is now a clean-energy consultant to the nonprofit group Environmental Entrepreneurs.