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Republicans to Navy: Stop buying biofuels

Republicans to Navy: Stop buying biofuels

Posting in Energy

Is the Navy's renewable energy investment in jeopardy?

The average member of the military may not know the difference between fossil fuels and modern, sustainable biofuel, but when it comes to financing such transitions, governmental budgets and the overall economy of a country can feel the pinch.

In the U.S. military, a number of vehicles have been tested and modified to support biofuels -- from the use of sugarcane to algae and animal waste. However, the cost of producing and transporting such fuel in comparison to standard oil can resort in exponential expenditure.

As Wired notes, the costs in this highly experimental industry are coming down gradually, as biofuel production structures and full-scale production areas are put in place. However, as one example highlights, the cost in relative terms is still extremely high. The Navy is paying approximately $12 million to purchase 450,000 gallons of biofuel to power a carrier strike group in Hawaii, which works out at $26.6-per-gallon. Compare this to $2.50 a gallon for petroleum, and the problem is obvious.

The service plans to spend $300 million on alternative fuels over the next five years, and spent $17 billion on oil alone last year. In the midst of a fragile economy, keeping the transition going to use more expensive energy sources may not be the best financial option.

However, making the decision to move towards sustainable sources -- especially as it costs organisations like the military millions whenever petroleum raises slightly in price -- will offer a return, just not in the short-term.

The airline industry is another user of biofuels and will be one of the largest consumers in the future. Honeywell's Jim Rekoske, whose company last year launched the first transatlantic flight which used a 50-50 blend of petroleum and biofuel said:

"We are at the infancy of advanced biofuels. We are still very early in that maturity curve and we need to make sure we understand that. We will get there. We will move down on the cost scale, but it’s going to take time and it takes further investment."

However, there may be a spanner in the works when it comes to organisations using such fuel -- especially if they are government-ran instead of private corporations. The problem is, when the main consumer bodies are restricted, the development and research of such fuels will be limited as a result.

Congressional Republicans have voted to effectively ban the military from purchasing a number of biofuels, in order to limit operational costs. The panel voted this month to prevent the military from either making or purchasing biofuel that costs more than "traditional fossil fuel" -- effectively barring them from the use of any type of new, experimental sustainable energy source.

As petroleum-based fuels, even with their ever-increasing rises in price will always be cheaper since the small, alternative market could never hope to compete, the military have now effectively had their wings clipped. It is a standard that biofuels cannot support -- and so furthering research in the field will suffer as a result.

Committee Republicans, including Rep. Randy Forbes, insist that while sustainable energy is important, other issues have to take priority. Forbes said earlier this year:

"Now, look, I love green energy. It's a matter of priorities. I understand that alternative fuels may help our guys in the field, but wouldn’t you agree that the thing they’d be more concerned about is having more ships, more planes, more prepositioned stocks?"

If the voted measure becomes law, then this arguably over-simplistic view has the potential to suffocate the already small biofuel industry -- scuppering research, which will lead to stalling in cost-cutting and being able to maintain industries that require vast amounts of fuel in the future.

Image credit: Flickr

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure