Pentagon increasing investment in developing alternative fuels

The Defense Department, which with its service branches spends more than $11 billion annually on liquid fuels, has tripled its investment in clean-energy technologies, including biofuels development, from 2006 to 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts organization concluded in a study released Tuesday.

The increased investment rose to $1.2 billion, from the prior $400 million, and is projected to reach $10 billion annually by 2030, the Pew study found.

That could have economic impact in Ohio, where the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is working with the University of Dayton Research Institute to test and develop 50-50 blends of synthetic and conventional aviation fuels. General Electric Co. has pledged to buy 5 million gallons of biofuels annually, starting in 2015, for use in its testing facilities for military and commercial jet engines in southwest Ohio. That is expected to spur the Ohio market for production of alternative fuels from feedstocks and eventually algae, among other potential sources.

Liquid petroleum fuels account for about three-quarters of the Defense Department’s $15 billion annual energy bill, according to the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate which did the study. The department is focusing on improving energy efficiency, including of its vehicles; renewable energy at bases, and development and testing of advanced biofuels that can be used in existing aircraft and ships.

The Air Force plans to use biofuels for 50 percent of its domestic aviation needs by 2015, the Pew study concluded. The commercial aviation industry, battered by high fuel prices, is watching for the results of the government’s research. The Navy is using hybrid electric technologies and trying to improve hull coatings to reduce fuel consumption, Pew researchers found.

Pentagon officials say their priorities include reducing reliance on foreign countries for petroleum, and reducing the defense budget’s exposure to oil price increases on the market.

Pew’s Environment Group advocates for green-friendly policies that can help save the natural environment and the life it supports. The organization on Tuesday released a letter, signed by more than 350 veterans including retired generals and admirals, urging President Obama and Congress to support the Pentagon’s efforts to diversify its energy sources.

But some in Congress have questioned whether that should be a priority for the Pentagon in an era of tightening budgets and increasing budget deficits. Some members proposed to limit the Pentagon’s authority to buy and use alternative fuels.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised AFRL’s work on developing alternative fuels and improving energy efficiency.

But, he said: “Taxpayers deserve proper oversight to ensure the billions being spent on alternative fuel sources beyond research and development is appropriately vetted, within the responsibilities of the Defense Department, and necessary for developing this capability.”

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