June 22, 2010

Beyond First-Generation Biofuels

Meet Alex Stark, our new research intern. We sent her to an event yesterday, and she felt inspired to recap it as her very first post for the blog. She is a recent graduate of Wellesley College, where she was a fellow of the Albright Institute for Global Affairs and a member of the Varsity Swimming and Diving team. She also studied transboundary river disputes in her senior thesis, and Arabic. In other words, she is a very talented addition to the natural security team. Welcome Alex!!

I walked right past Ralph Nader, holding an impromptu book signing and photo session in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, on my way to an event hosted by the Center for National Policy called Biofuels: The Future of Aviation? Implications for Climate Change and National Security.  It seemed like a good omen for an environment-related event. 

The panel consisted of Rear Admiral Philip Cullom from the Navy Energy Coordination Office, Mr. Richard Wynne of the Boeing Company,  Mr. John Heimlich, Chief Economist of the Air Transport Association and Dr. John Gardner from Washington State University.  Sure enough, there was one point that arose repeatedly during the panelists’ presentations that I found particularly compelling.

In the past, when I heard the word “biofuels” I thought of ethanol produced from corn.  The production of this kind of biofuel was once all the rage, yet it proved to be a double-edged sword.  Between 2004 and 2008, the production of ethanol derived from corn in the United States rose from 3.5 to 9 million gallons.  At the same time, from 2002 to 2008, food commodity prices rose by 220%, leading to 100 million more people in the world falling into hunger.  This explosion in food prices led to food riots from Egypt to Bangladesh, and even the fall of the Haitian government, in 2008.  Thus it is clear that biofuels can present a serious security tradeoff.

Yet at this event, I learned that the U.S. Navy in particular is working to convert to the use of “next generation” or “second generation” biofuels (in fact, the Navy aims to acquire 50% of its total energy consumption needs from alternative sources by 2020, and to have a “Great Green Fleet” by 2016).  These biofuels come not from corn but from non-food plants like Camelina, biomass waste, or microbial sources like algae.  Second generation biofuel sources like Camelina are superior to corn ethanol, according to the panel, because they have lower CO2 emissions throughout the lifecycle of the plant, grow on marginal land and have higher yields per agricultural input, and therefore have the potential to avoid the “food for fuel” paradox even while reducing GHG emissions by up to 60-80% over fossil fuel equivalents. 

Of course, the natural security team has been working to convince me that it is important for the U.S. military to find alternative sources of energy in order to ensure its long-term energy supplies while mitigating its environmental impact.  But relying on fossil fuels as the sole source of energy causes other security problems.  As Rear Admiral Phillip Cullom pointed out, treating energy as a strategic resource and moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels will help mitigate price volatility, as well as the potential to serve as a flashpoint for military intervention, global instability related to climate change and the potential public health and other environmental repercussions of drilling for oil, as exemplified by the BP oil spill.  Or, in the words of Menda Fife, the panel’s moderator, “the world’s oil doesn’t exactly come from the most stable areas or most reliable partners.”  It seems like second generation biofuels have the potential to augment U.S. national security without the negative security repercussions that can come as a side effect of using corn for fuel.