The Navy’s Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron flew on a 50-50 blend of aviation biofuels during the Naval Air Station Patuxent River’s 2011 Air Expo over the Labor Day Weekend. Some inside the Washington Beltway may have thought they were seeing unicorns, but the Blue Angels’ air show and practice runs marked a high profile step in the military’s march toward use of renewable energy.
In earlier remarks, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted that this would be the first time an entire squadron would fly using biofuels. And, the Blue Angels would be able to demonstrate conclusively that biofuels can replace petroleum fuels without sacrificing performance.
The flight punctuates a recent announcement by the USDA, the Department of Energy, and the Navy to coordinate efforts to help commercialize aviation biofuels needed by the military. Their combined efforts could provide $510 million in matching dollars to companies building advanced biorefineries, if Congress approves. The memorandum signed by the three agencies would flex the DOD’s Defense Production Act authority to ensure that commercial development of advanced biofuels keeps pace with the military’s directive to switch to renewable energy.
The combined efforts of the USDA, DOE and Navy ensure that they address the supply chain from feedstock to fuel, the technology assessment, and the commercial viability. The military is a significant customer for transportation fuel, representing about 2 percent of the transportation fuel market. The three agencies are reaching out to industry to gather information on companies’ abilities to generate sufficient fuels that meet military specifications. The agencies also made clear that industry must bring matching dollars to the deal.
BIO has also been discussing with the military other authorities that can help the commercial development of advanced biofuels. At a July 26 panel discussion at the 2011 Sustaining Military Readiness Conference in Nashville, BIO’s Matt Carr and others proposed that the DOD’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative (REPI) could be employed to grow biofuels crops. One challenge to supplying biofuels at a commercial scale is convincing farmers to grow new energy crops or to produce algae, which require considerable time and infrastructure.
REPI could be used as a way for DOD to help farmers establish crops harvested for biofuels as well as fulfill the program’s goal of forestalling development encroachment around military bases. REPI works by leveraging DOD funding with money provided by private conservation groups and state and local governments to prevent encroachment of military bases from urban sprawl while preserving the land’s ecology.
“While Carr concedes the immediate buffer lands around military bases are not enough to sustain a commercial-scale biorefinery, he said the REPI-renewable energy concept provides an opportunity for small-scale production and also helps demonstrate biofuels can be produced commercially, can overcome the reluctance of farmers to grow the crops, and could possibly be combined with other programs such as BCAP to help sustain larger production.”