It’s tough to get federal funds for anything these days, unless you’re the military.
The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy have teamed up with the Navy to spend up to $510 million over the next three years to advance drop-in biofuels for aviation and marine applications to power the military.
The agreement is no surprise. Just last week, the U.S. Army announced the creation of an Energy Initiatives Office to help the agency centrally plan and deploy renewable energy projects. The Army is looking to get 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025.
The Navy also announced a partnership with the DOE’s research arm, ARPA-E to develop grid-level energy storage. The Navy has set some ambitious clean energy goals for the coming years, including having half of the energy used by the department coming from alternative fuel or alternative sources by 2020.
Arun Majumdar, Director of ARPA-E, told Greentech Media that he thought the future of fuels was one of the most exciting areas of research during an interview at the ARPA-E Summit -- and Obama agrees.
"Biofuels are an important part of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home," President Obama said in a statement. "But supporting biofuels cannot be the role of government alone. That's why we're partnering with the private sector to speed development of next-generation biofuels that will help us continue to take steps towards energy independence and strengthen communities across our country."
The funding for drop-in biofuels is more than the entire funding that ARPA-E received in 2009, which was about $400 million. The focus on biofuels will certainly reignite the fuel vs. food debate, as there have yet to be commercially competitive fuels from other sources, such as algae.
(That doesn’t mean that the Navy isn’t dabbling in algae fuels. It has a deal to get hundreds of thousands gallons of algae fuel from Solazyme -- although the cost is still far higher than petroleum sources).
The DOE is also looking into next-generation fuels that would not use biomass or petroleum, but Majumdar said those might not make it to market for 10 and maybe 20 years, if at all.
The current memorandum of understanding between the three government agencies includes a call for proposals pertaining to commercial-scale bio refineries from non-food sources. Companies that want to participate will have to match the government’s investment.
Finding diverse fuel sources is especially important to the DOD -- not just because the agency consumes about 80 percent of all the energy used by the federal government, but because the task of protecting fuel lines puts troops’ lives at risk.
In a time of political divide, energy security and homegrown jobs are issues that every department and politician seems able to rally behind. "These pioneer plants will demonstrate advanced technologies to produce infrastructure-compatible, drop-in renewable fuels from America's abundant biomass resources," Energy Secretary Chu said in a statement. "It will support development of a new, rural-focused industry that will replace imported crude oil with secure, renewable fuels made here in the U.S."