Published on April 26th, 2013 | by Tina Casey1
Navy Biofuel Program Goes Full Steam Ahead With Four New Pilot Projects
Last year certain members of Congress waged an all-out war against the Navy’s ambitious biofuel initiatives, supposedly because they were too expensive. Fast-forward another year and the Navy biofuel program is still going full steam ahead, even though those same members are still trying to stomp it down. In the latest development, another $18 million in matching funds has just been announced for four new pilot projects. Funny thing is, this time around there’s been a minimum of grandstanding over the votes. Why could that be, we wonder.
Navy Biofuel From Non-Food Feedstocks
The four new projects all follow the same Obama Administration pattern of focusing on biofuel feedstocks that don’t involve food for humans or livestock. As an added sustainability bonus, these next-generation feedstocks generally don’t take up land that could be used for food crops, either.
That includes switchgrass and other woody plants that can thrive on land that’s unsuitable for other crops, as well as municipal waste and other forms of refuse, and algae.
A United Biofuel Front
The four new projects also follow the Obama Administration pattern of enlisting other federal agencies, namely the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture, to the biofuel front lines whenever Congress maneuvers against the Navy.
Last year, the naysayers in Congress (Okay, so Republican leadership. There, I said it.) took the tack of prohibiting the Navy from purchasing any fuel that is more expensive than conventional fuel, effectively ruling out biofuel.
In response, the Obama Administration used its powers under the decades-old Defense Production Act and other pipelines to authorize funds for private companies to build pilot projects and commercial-scale facilities. The end goal is to help jumpstart a cost-competitive U.S. biofuel industry, and that in turn would sink the entire Republican case against military biofuels.
Four New Biofuel Pilot Projects
The Department of Energy is spearheading the new $18 million package, under a 50-50, public-private matching funds arrangement.
Cobalt has developed a fermentation-based process that uses bacteria to break down woody biomass and convert it directly to butanol. Under the new announcement, the company will receive up to $2.5 million to operate a pilot-scale facility converting switchgrass to butanol as a precursor to jet fuel. Given the Defense Department’s focus on climate change, the project also involves assessing greenhouse gas emissions from the facility.
Cobalt will be working with the Navy at China Lake in California, along with its long-running partner the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Also involved is the Missouri-based Show Me Energy Cooperative, which is a traditional farming cooperative focusing on biomass for energy conversion.
Another piece of the pie consists of up to $4.2 million for Frontline Bioenergy LLC for a project in Iowa that pivots on the proprietary TarFreeGas bioreactor. The fully integrated system will convert woody biomass, municipal solid waste and other refuse to a liquid product that can be upgraded to military specs.
Mercurius Biorefining, Inc. will get up to $4.6 million for a woody (aka cellulosic) biomass-to-biofuel project in Washington State, in a consortium joined by Purdue University, the federal Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and the biofuel innovator Incitor.
Rounding out the group is a company called BioProcess Algae, which is in line for up to $6.4 million to build an algae biorefinery that produces high value byproducts in addition to military-grade biofuel. So far the plan is for glycerine and animal feed byproducts, but if you look at other private sector biofuel projects there is also a potential for high value personal care products and nutrition supplements.
Biofuel and National Security
The four new projects will also benefit the Air Force and Coast Guard to some extent, but the Navy has really been the driving force behind a concerted effort by the Defense Department to cut its petroleum dependency.
That means cutting dependency on petroleum, period, and not just dependency on imported petroleum.
The problem is that the petroleum market is global, so no matter how much petroleum the U.S. produces domestically, the Department of Defense will still be vulnerable to price spikes and supply issues, including those resulting from conflicts overseas or actions by unfriendly nations.
The Defense Department also recognizes that its continued petroleum dependency is a factor in climate change, which impacts national security. It contributes to overseas conflicts and population displacement, and it puts additional humanitarian and relief responsibilities on its resources, especially concerning the Navy.
To top it off, the Defense Department also recognizes that by serving as an immense, eager customer for biofuels, it can help accelerate economies of scale that enable advanced biofuels to compete with petroleum products in the civilian sector, too.
Consider the Agriculture Department’s historic mission of fostering rural economic development as a critical factor in the general welfare and national security, and its mashup with the Departments of Defense and Energy on biofuel projects will become crystal clear.
That could also explain why, compared to last year’s thunder and lightening over the Navy biofuel program, we’ve been hearing a lot of cricket chirps from the Republican side of the aisle this year.
The pilot biofuel projects are just one ring in a broader scheme under the Rural Energy for America (REAP) program, which focuses on growing rural economies by developing a domestic biofuel industry.
The result is that farmers are starting to realize the benefits of a biofuel economy, as illustrated by the partnership with Show Me Energy in one of the new pilot projects.
That could explain why, when anti-biofuel legislation came up for a vote in the Senate earlier this year, an impressive number of six Republican senators joined all but one Democrats in turning it aside. That group included farm state senators Roy Blunt (MO), Chuck Grassley (IA), Debra Fischer (NE), and Mike Johanns (NE). The lone Democratic anti-biofuel senator was Robert P. Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania, which kind of makes sense given that state’s support for the natural gas industry.