Renewable energy stakeholders were reminded again in recent weeks that misguided criticism and outright misinformation launched against the nation’s pursuit of a clean energy future must be turned back.
Whether it’s the rhetorical and legislative assaults on the federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS); the oil industry’s legal effort to turn back EPA’s approval of E15; or the varied attacks against the U.S. military’s development of renewable, domestically grown alternatives to petroleum-based transportation fuels that too often come from hostile nations, the challenges must be met.
An example of the latter is the recent publication of an assessment written by a naval aviator who currently teaches at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The paper presents what the author claims are “deficiencies that preclude biomass from becoming a primary energy source and biofuels from replacing petroleum as a national-scale transportation fuel.”
Unfortunately, some of the media that picked up the paper’s release characterized it as an “Air Force report to Congress.” In fact, the paper represents the position of one individual and serves as the basis for an article just published in an Air Force journal. That journal carries a wide variety of strategic research and position papers, and its editors make clear the opinions put forth do not carry the official sanction of the Air Force or the Pentagon.
The official U.S. military policy is to fund biofuel research, buy test and demonstration quantities of biofuels, and contribute funding for the construction of new biorefineries that will help commercialize production, increase the domestic fuel supply, reduce dependence upon foreign oil and reduce fuel costs associated with oil price fluctuations.
Fortunately, there are many more military experts who take the strategic long view and understand, unlike the author of the questionable article, the significant strategic vulnerability of today’s petroleum-based fuels, as well as the vast capabilities inherent in U.S. scientific and engineering communities.
It is undeniable that U.S. dependence on oil represents a national security risk today and more so in the future. As pointed out in a recent rebuttal to the paper at issue by Leo Goff, a retired Navy Captain who now serves as the program manager of the Military Advisory Board for CAN, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization, vast quantities of the world’s oil supplies flow through choke points that are a strategic venerability that can be exploited to cripple not only the United States, but its allies and trading partners as well. As a result, the U.S military is required to expend tremendous resources, both in dollars and lives, to protect oil supply lines.
Goff and others of a similar outlook, including most policy makers know that the only way to effectively reduce the strategic venerability of U.S. dependence on oil is to stop using so much of it. While energy efficiency will be a key part in reducing oil consumption, a major component must be to find alternatives to oil.
Because oil has been relatively convenient, finding suitable alternatives is difficult task that requires political will and innovation. Embracing new energy sources has brought with it skeptics. A Nobel Prize winner in chemistry once dismissed the development of atomic energy as making “moonshine.”
The expense of new energy sources is held up by those who favor a business as usual approach. In fact, an alternative energy source may at first be costly, but given that this nation is only in the beginning stages of its development of biofuels, history has shown that U.S. innovation can eventually take new technologies into the mainstream at reasonable costs.
CNA’s Goff notes that the first computers were developed primarily for the Defense Department. They cost thousands of times more than they do today and were so massive that conventional wisdom of the time was that they would have limited applicability. Yet dedicated scientists and engineers, backed early on by government demand, has brought relatively inexpensive computers into virtually every home, business and school.
Those like Goff and other policy leaders understand that the nations need the same type of innovators who can explore and develop new, clean energy forms, and who recognize that a “business-as-usual” approach will not work. No one should suggest that the nation should completely abandon carbon- or hydrogen-based energy in the short term. But what is needed is the elimination of the U.S. addiction to the convenience of oil.
All renewable energy stakeholders should call on policy makers to enable the Defense Department to send a strong demand signal that will drive down the costs for alternatives to conventional oil, including biofuels. The U.S. government currently provides a quite mature oil industry twenty times the amount of subsidies than it does to alternative fuels. It is time to level the playing field and unharness the brain power of American ingenuity on this problem.