Sometimes calculating efficiency can be difficult. Do you rely just on the cost associated with your achieving your ultimate goal? Does it make more sense to look a little deeper and assess the impact of your choices to determine whether the route that looks the cheapest carries with it unintended consequences—consequences that could trigger even more expensive fixes at a later date? And what about the influences that are more difficult to quantify: those environmental, political, or human resource-related hazards and half steps?
Yes, energy efficiency can be complicated—and this complexity was illustrated perfectly last week when the House Armed Services Committee decided to not only end an experimental program by the Navy to test the use of biofuels on its aircraft carriers, but to ban future use of alternative fuels by the Defense Department.
The Green Strike Force demo is scheduled to take place during RIMPAC in Hawaii next month (www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/04/is-the-pentagon-going-green-or-eco-pretending/), and it comes on the heals of a commitment by many branches of the armed forces to incorporate clean energy into their transportation budgets and strategies.
The Committee initially determined that the cost of the biofuel, estimated at about $12 million for 450,000 gallons of fossil fuels with a biofuel alternative (made up of waste grease, including chicken fat) was too expensive to justify the switch. But then the Committee doubled down, adding a an amendment to the 2013 Defense appropriations bill barring the US armed forces from purchasing alternative fuel—for any purpose—if that fuel cost more per gallon than conventional fossil fuels (www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2012/05/house-armed-services-committee-proposes-ban-on-biofuels). It should not surprise you that an additional rider was added to the decision, excluding coal and natural gas from the prohibition against alternative fuels.
We’ve discussed the mismatched pricing schemes of fossil fuels and renewable energy sources many times before. When you account for all of the subsidies and tax breaks that trickle (or gush) down to the oil and gas industries, it’s hardly a fair fight. As Noah Shachtman neatly explains in a report on the decision for Wired, “It’s a standard that may be almost impossible to meet, energy experts believe; there’s almost no way the tiny, experimental biofuel industry can hope to compete on price with the massive, century-old fossil fuels business.”
And more often than not, these budget assessments fail to take into account other, less direct costs, like environmental cleanup, GHG emissions, foreign policy implications, and all the other consequences of continuing to depend on fossil fuels as the major source of our domestic power generation.
Tom Todaro, a biofuel entrepreneur and founder and CEO of AltAir Fuels LLC, put the matter more succinctly. “This idea that we can match [the price of] crude oil — I think it’s such a bullshit question,” Todaro is quoted as saying by Wired. “A car with airbags costs more than a car without. Society decides how valuable those airbags are. Society can decide the value of renewable fuels.”
This most recent decision by the House Armed Services Committee is disorienting, coming on the heels of a concerted effort by the Defense Department to support alternative energy, a decision based just as much on troop safety (military fuel convoys are vulnerable and pricey to protect) as sustainability. The Navy is currently working with the Department of Agriculture to convert unused factories to biofuel processing plants. In fact, in September of last year, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus set an ambitious goal: half of all of the Navy’s energy sources would comes from sources other than oil by 2020 (http://climatecrocks.com/2011/09/13/secretary-of-the-navy-ray-mabus-goals-for-energy-efficiency/).
During a February meeting with Mabus, Representative Rany Forbes—a member of the Committee—suggested the Secretary’s priorities were misaligned.
“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,” said Rep. Randy Forbes during a February hearing with Mabus. “Shouldn’t we refocus our priorities and make those things our priorities instead of advancing a biofuels market?”
Forbes then finished up by declaring, “You’re not the secretary of the energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy.”
But Mabus is not going down without a fight. In March, the Secretary told the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power, “It’s a false choice to say that we should concentrate on more ships versus a different kind of fuel. If we don’t get a different kind of fuel, if we don’t have a secure domestic supply of energy at an affordable price . . . the ships and the planes may not be able to be used because we can’t get the fuel.”
Mabus also explained why a more stable, domestic fuel supply should be nurtured and supported. As the price of oil per barrel increases, the Navy’s overhead expands exponentially—up to $31 million each time a barrel of oil goes up by a dollar.
“We simply buy too much fossil fuels from places that are either actually or potentially volatile, from places that may or may not have our best interests at heart,” he said. “We would never let these places build our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles, but we do give them a say on whether those ships steam, aircraft fly, or ground vehicles operate because we buy so much energy from them.”
And in one last, intriguing twist, Biofuels Digest reports this week that new tests conducted at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base demonstrate that US warplanes “are capable of flying faster and carry more payload on missions, when flying with synthetic fuels, including biofuels, compared to conventional military jet fuels made from petroleum.”
So what do you think? Do you agree, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan states in his analysis of the House Armed Services Committee decision, that is it disingenuous for the military to site the cost of a new technology as a reason to discontinue (or bar) its use? After all, as Kaplan rightly points out, some of our most expensive technologies eventually became affordable thanks to the market created by the federal government—shouldn’t those markets (NASA, the Pentagon, the Armed Forces) be allowed to assess, test, and experiment to find the best technology, or fuel, available? And how persuasive is the Committee’s cost argument in light of the new findings by the Wright-Patterson AFB studies?