You know when you open your emails and click a link someone sent months ago, which has another link to the original article, which you look at, wondering why, but then you see something really annoying? Well, that’s just happened to me. It’s happened before. In fact, it happens a lot. Today, it’s the idea of 21st century warfare being powered by biofuels.
OK, so the story was from a newsletter sent back in October, about a new publication which I misread as being called “Fuelling the Future by Force”. Whoa, that’s a bit blatant! What do we have here? Click. The report, which is actually called “Fueling (sic) the Future Force” (easy mistake!) is one of several recent reports (such as last April’s warning from the US Joint Forces Command and the leaked German military report) which refer to the military thinking about ‘peak oil’ issues. It’s no surprise. If I’m worried about and making plans for the inevitable rise in fossil fuel prices and its impact on our globalised, just-in-time, energy-guzzling way of living then I’d bet my last penny that the military was. After all, oil exporting countries will, I’m sure, stop exporting their oil willingly, especially to us infidels, long before they stop pumping it out of the ground. If the West wants continued access to oil, and the emerging economies also want access to it but there’s less to go around and the countries whose oil it is want to hang on to it, there’s gonna be a fight.
Anyway, the report was produced in September 2010 by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank which, despite sounding alarmingly like the Project for a New American Century (what did happen to that refreshingly open plan for continuing American global supremacy?), allegedly has strong links with the Obama administration. CNAS recommends that the Department of Defence (DOD) transitions entirely away from petroleum by 2040 and suggests biofuels. Turns out there have been several successful tests of biofuels blends in military aircraft at Elgin and Edwards Air Force Bases and no doubt others.
So “Fueling the Future Force” states, on page 3, that “To ready America’s armed forces for tomorrow’s challenges, DOD should ensure that it can operate all of its systems on non-petroleum fuels by 2040”. It goes on (page 7) to inform the reader that “There is an array of reliable, renewable fuels that should be considered as alternative supplies to petroleum, including multiple generations of biofuels”. Given that “up to 77 percent of DOD’s massive energy needs – and most of the aircraft, ground vehicles, ships, and weapons systems that DOD is purchasing today – depend on petroleum fuel” (page 2) this is indeed some task! But never fear, they’ve done it before and they can do it again. Page 6 reassures us that “Transitioning away from petroleum dependence by 2040 will be enormously difficult, but fortunately the U.S. defense sector has made several energy transitions successfully in its history. In particular, it moved from coal to petroleum to nuclear power in its ships”. Now that’s what really annoyed me. The net energy-enhancing switch from using coal to using oil for fuelling ships (which happened about 100 years ago, when we were just on the cusp of vast oil discoveries around the globe) provided more energy more cheaply. It was an economic winner which just required some technological innovation to realise. We’re great at technological innovation when energy is plentiful. However, today’s supposed switch from oil to biofuels for aviation is not the same thing.
You see, the problem is that very few people seem to realise (or if they do, they don’t speak out about it much) that the energy returned from oil is colossal compared to that returned from biofuels once you take the energy inputs into account. Most of us understand ‘net profit’ but we fail to make the logical leap to ‘net energy’ because we have been swimming in cheap energy for over 100 years thanks to, mostly, oil. There has to be a positive surplus in both cases or things start to go awry. The jury’s out on whether some biofuels even have a positive energy return but an excellent report on all things EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) reminds us on page 51 that “it is important to recall that industrial societies emerged in the context of energy returns in the double digits- 50:1 or more, meaning fifty times as much energy yielded as invested”. According to this study, soybean biodiesel currently returns 93 percent (note that 100% more is just a doubling or 2 times as much) more energy than is used to produce it (1.93:1), while corn grain ethanol provides only 25 percent more energy (1.25:1).
It takes energy to get energy into a useful form and with biofuels there’s the additional dimension of growing the stuff. So if biofuels are really going to replace the energy used by the US military complex then how many acres of land would that take? Well, that would depend from what the biofuel was being extracted. Page 4 reveals that, “The Air Force and Navy flight-tested camelina-based biofuel blends in the past year”. Hmm, camelina? It turns out that others with a keen interest in flying have also tested this non-edible, easy-to-grow plant. So, how much land? I’d really like to know….
“Fueling the Future Force” does acknowledge (page eight) that, “Other environmental costs of fuel production can include heavy water use and diverting arable land to fuel production, both of which can trigger negative side effects if not managed properly”. But nowhere does it mention how much land would be required, which seems quite an obvious question, or how much energy we would actually have compared to today’s fossil-fuelled military. I fear we will be fuelling the future by force after all, as we always have.