A Great Green Boondoggle? Retired Navy pilot says biofuels waste millions

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Posted: Jun 24, 2014 9:46 AM
A Great Green Boondoggle? Retired Navy pilot says biofuels waste millions
Photo by the U.S. Navy

GAMBLING ON BIOFUELS: The U.S. Navy is spending millions to use biofuels to power its fleet. But a former Navy pilot with a degree in physics says it’s a waste of money and endangers national security. Photo by the U.S. Navy.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The U.S. Navy boasts that’s it’s well on its way to creating a “Great Green Fleet” powered by biofuels.

But a recently retired Navy captain is making waves of his own, saying the project is a complete waste of taxpayer money and that politics is trumping national security.

“I don’t want to see us throwing away billions of dollars, and we’re doing it in a vain pursuit of something that is indefensible,” said Todd “Ike” Kiefer, an Annapolis graduate who majored in physics. He’s a 25-year Navy pilot with a master’s degree in strategy from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

“We really have to think this through and not rely on feel-good assumptions,” Kiefer said in a telephone interview with Watchdog.org from his home in Mississippi.

In an 86-page academic paper he takes dead aim at cultivated crop-based liquid biofuels such as algae, biodiesel and corn ethanol. The provacative title:  “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy.”

The Navy has made biofuels the centerpiece of its commitment to get 50 percent of its energy from alternative sources by 2020.

In an interview four years ago, Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy) Tom Hicks said the newly dubbed “Great Green Fleet” would include a strike group run completely on alternative fuels by 2016.

But Kiefer insists biofuels can’t get the Navy where it wants to go.

Kiefer says biofuels can’t generate enough of an economic return on investment to justify the expense. Biofuels, Kiefer’s study says, lack power density, and that limitation can only be overcome by using such vast amounts of land that it becomes counterproductive.

BIOFUEL CRITIC: Todd “Ike” Kiefer wrote an 86-page paper claiming that millions of dollars are wasted on biofuel programs.

“The assumptions that somehow biofuels can remove dependence on foreign resources turns out not only to be false but inverted,” Kiefer said. “It actually makes you more dependent and more vulnerable.”

Kiefer’s paper came out 1 1/2 years ago but, he said, the Navy delayed it from publication and never directly contacted him about his findings. “That was a conversation I was hoping for, but it never happened,” Kiefer said.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy offered rebuttals.

DOD said Kiefer’s paper “has been tailored with literatures with negative points of views and results for biofuels” and said Kiefer’s critique of high fuel costs dismisses the potential for technological breakthroughs.

“If one uses the status quo to decide what society should or should not do, many technology innovations and civilization advancements would not have occurred.” the DOD response said.

There’s no debate government is spending a lot of money.

Since 2007, the military has spent $67.8 million on 1.35 million gallons of biofuel, averaging more than $50 a gallon or $2,100 a barrel. Kiefer says that cost taxpayers $60 million more than if conventional fuel was purchased.

Citing figures from the Energy Information Agency, Kiefer says the federal government is paying more than $10 a barrel in biofuel subsidies and, according to the Department of Energy’s own numbers, it pumped $603 million into biofuel refinery construction in 2010 alone, as part of a $7.8 billon in annual biofuel spending.

All this is coming, Kiefer writes, “while scores of failed bio-refineries are on the market today in bankruptcy fire sales.” 

It’s not just the Navy that’s entranced by the allure of biofuels.

A glance across the country shows nearly every state has biofuel regulations, incentives and grants.

In New Mexico, for example, the state provides a blending tax credit for producers of biodiesel.

“Biodiesel is a superb fuel if it’s made correctly,” Colin Messer, Clean Energy Program Manager at the New Mexico Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department, told New Mexico Watchdog.

Corn ethanol subsidies flourish for states in the Midwest, and the Obama administration has awarded contracts worth $16 million to three biofuel plants in Illinois, Nebraska and California.

But Kiefer says those programs are also throwing good money after bad.

“There’s this feel-good perception of what biofuels are,” he said. “But if your biofuel, when you actually trace out all its component ingredients, and all the energy that went into making it and it turns out that 50 to 90 percent of the energy in that gallon of biofuel in the end is fossil fuel energy, then you really don’t have a green fuel, a clean fuel or a renewable fuel.”

Kiefer’s paper includes a chart showing the cost of government subsidies for various biofuels and alternative energy sources vastly outweighs the subsidies of conventional energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas:

energy subsidies by the federal government 2010

Kiefer isn’t against investing in alternative energy. For example, he advises the military to offer monetary incentives for achieving milestones in more promising fields, such as direct fuel photosynthesis and improved PV solar panel performance. “Solar panels can do much better than algae can ever do,” Kiefer said.

It should be noted that Kiefer is not alone with his criticism of the military’s biofuel program.

In 2011, a study initiated by Congress by the Rand Corporation concluded, “There is no direct benefit to the Department of Defense or the services from using alternative fuels rather than petroleum-derived fuels.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a big fan of the program, said he “vehemently” disagreed with the report.

A year later, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took his own shot at Mabus, saying in a letter, “You are the Secretary of the Navy, not the Secretary of Energy.”

As for Kiefer, 48, he retired in June of 2013 and now works as a manager at a power company in Meridian, Miss. He may not be on active duty anymore, but he believes the Navy’s alternative energy program is not only wasteful but endangers the fleet.

“It’s a recipe for unrest and disaster,” Kiefer said. “We need a sanity check.”

Read Kiefer’s paper by clicking here.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski