Navy, RAND at odds over the value of alternative fuel

Wednesday - 1/26/2011, 12:41pm EST

Jared Serbu, Reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

A study released Tuesday by a well-respected think tank said there is no military benefit to the Defense Department's continued pursuit of alternative fuels-even though such efforts might provide a benefit to the country as a whole. The report, mandated by Congress in the 2009 Defense authorization bill, raised immediate objections from the Navy, which said the researchers at the RAND Corporation had not done their homework on the issue.

James Bartis, a senior policy researcher at RAND and the study's lead author, said his team concluded that from a military perspective, the source of the fuel burned in aviation and naval settings-the focus of the report-made no difference.

"This fuel looks just like petroleum, it behaves just like petroleum, it's no worse and no better," Bartis said in an interview. "For that reason, they don't offer any military advantage in terms of what our military does, which is fight."

The 130-page document also concluded DoD has been overoptimistic about the prospects of the marketplace producing viable alternative fuels, and that it is overly focused on technologies that will never be able to scale up to meet the nation's fuel needs.

But the central question, Bartis said, is whether or not venturing into the field of alternative fuel experimentation should be a function of military in the first place.

"There are some very good people in the Defense Department, some very bright people," he said. "But we also have a very large program in the Energy Department."

"So we've simply raised this to Congress that they need to look at whether this is the wisest thing to do, given the pressures on the Defense budget and the national budget in general. We don't make a recommendation one way or the other, and in fact if we want to keep it in DoD, we do have recommendations on how they ought to manage it better than they're managing it today."

The Navy disagrees

At least one major component of DoD sees things very differently. "This doesn't represent RAND's best work," said Tom Hicks, the Navy's deputy undersecretary for energy. "It reads more like opinion than necessarily research based on engagement with industry and those leading the industry."

Hicks said the Navy was leading DoD's efforts on alternative fuel development, and his office was not consulted during the preparation of the report. Hicks spoke on a conference call with reporters just after the report's public release, saying the RAND researchers made "factual errors" and "misrepresentations" about DoD and private industry's efforts to turn renewables into replacements for carbon-based fuel.

"Our view in talking to the industry is that the report doesn't seem to square with what we're hearing, not just from the companies themselves but from their equity partners as well," he said. "We also dialogue with other government agencies-USDA and DoE-and the information doesn't seem to square with them."

RAND researchers concluded that DoD was spending far too much of its time and resources investing in fuels made from seed-based replacements for fossil fuel. Bartis said that while those end products will burn just as well as petroleum from a technical perspective, they will never be realistic fossil fuel replacements in the real world.

"Our country today uses about 20 million barrels a day of oil," he said. "If I tried to make only one percent of that oil from seeds, it would take about 10 percent of the cultivatable land of the entire country. That's a dead end for us. You can't take that much food land out of production simply to meet one percent of your fuel needs."

Seed oils, however, are not the only focus of alternative energy research in DoD. Another, much-touted potential future energy source is based on algae. Bartis and his team and RAND agreed that algae shows a great deal of promise for eliminating the country's dependence on fossil fuels, but not in the near-term.

"The view appears to be in the Defense Department seems to be that these oils are around the corner and that they're an emerging fuel option," he said. "Our analysis says that these fuels are well over a decade away, and will take a lot of work. That's based not only on our careful investigation of where that technology is, but also on our experience with other emerging energy technology."

Research misses the mark

Hicks said those conclusions are simply wrong, and that RAND arrived at them because it did not adequately consult with industry or with Navy officials at his level, the Office of the Secretariat. He said the Navy has a much more accurate view of what industry will be able to produce in the next few years, optimistic though it may be. He said venture capitalists who are funding U.S.-based alternative energy projects seem to agree with him.