Military and Aviation Industry Outline Need for Sustainable Biofuels

BIO’s World Congress in Toronto hosted a general plenary session, “Civilian and Military Aviation Fuels: Can Biotech Make a Difference?,” that provided significant insight on proposed legislation back in Washington. The session featured Michael Lakeman of Boeing, Charles Fishel of Biojet Corp., and Chris Tindal, Director of Operational Energy for the U.S. Navy.

Representing the commercial aviation sector, both Lakeman and Fishel set forth small initial goals for including biofuels in the mix of aviation fuels. Lakeman envision a 1 percent goal –60 million gallons – for biofuel use by commercial airlines by 2015. He noted that these must be truly sustainable options – those that can achieve sustainable certification for carbon reduction. The industry has already rejected several choices that were found to be unsustainable.

As Fishel explained, the small goals are appropriate. The commercial airline industry needs low-cost fuels and so may not be able to compete for sustainable options produced by biotech companies, which will likely find it more attractive to fill low-volume, high-value chemical markets. Sustainable solutions such as algae must reach large-scale commercial production before they can begin to produce high-volume, low-value fuels at a competitive price.

But as Navy Assistant Secretary Tindal noted, the military can help biotech and algae biofuel companies reach commercial stage and drive prices down by acting as an early adopter. The military represents a small but significant consumer of fuels and oils, using nearly 2 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States, with about 75 percent of its use focused on liquid fuels. In 2008, DoD purchased $16 billion worth of fuel.

The Navy accordingly has set aggressive goals for use of sustainable advanced biofuels. By 2020, the Navy intends to meet half of its energy needs with low carbon sources. One near-term goal is to sail the Great Green Fleet – comprising a carrier and its air wing, a submarine, two destroyers and a cruiser – around the world with biofuels, beginning in 2016.

The Great Green Fleet showcases both an environmental goal and a tactical one as well. The environmental goal is important, as the military’s Quadrennial Defense Review has shown that resource constraints and global climate change pose potential military challenges if they lead to conflict. But the tactical benefit is important as well. Tactical biorefineries specifically producing sustainable military biofuels can be established in strategic locations to make use of local feedstocks.

As Tindal noted, the Navy does not want to sail the Great Green Fleet with a long convoy line of tankers providing the fuel. This mirrors one current disadvantage of reliance on petroleum, the need to protect a supply line. According to Tindal, “We want to be able to pull into different ports around the globe and be able to refuel on biofuels.”

Recently introduced legislation from Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) could help the military become the technology leader in scaling up commercial production of sustainable biofuels, such as algae. It would allow the Department of Defense to engage in 15 year contracts for purchase of biofuels (up from the current five years), which would provide significant market stability for small companies trying to commercialize new technologies. Such long-term contracts would help them to attract private investment to build the small biorefineries in strategic locations around the world that the military needs.

Notably, this legislation would preserve Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which ensures that the federal government and the military do not purchase fuels that have a worse greenhouse gas emission profile than petroleum. As Inslee noted while introducing the language, “With added Congressional authority to purchase longer-term contracts, our defense sector could adopt domestically produced sustainable fuels for the security of our troops.”

Brent Erickson of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section added, “We need a dramatic scaling up of advanced biofuel production in the United States, beginning with capital investment in deploying new technologies. The Defense Department recognizes that domestically produced advanced biofuels are vital to our energy security.”