In The Navy

by Richard T. Stuebi

At last week’s Clean Economy Summit in Washington, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus gave a stirring speech on how the Navy and Marines were committed to pushing ahead on new clean sources of energy to fuel their operations.  The energy goals of the Navy include the creation of a “Green Fleet” and the impressive target of 50% from domestic renewable energy supplies by 2020.

The goals are not just long-term, they are beginning to be implemented already.  Mabus told of the USS Makin Island that is using hybrid drive technology, employing battery power at low sailing speeds, that saved $2 million in fuel costs in its maiden voyage from its launch in Mississippi around South America to its base in San Diego.  “Over the lifetime of this ship,” Mabus continued, “we expect to save American taxpayers about a quarter-billion dollars.”

Mabus recited the daunting economic costs (estimated at $400/gallon all-in for gasoline at the frontline in Afghanistan) and personnel costs (extra security forces and casualties associated with fuel convoys of high value to the enemy) of hauling petroleum products to forward military theatres of operation.  Then, he switched from the factual to the philosophic by asking a compelling rhetorical question:  “We would never allow our ships, planes and tanks to be made somewhere other than the U.S., but we’re OK with powering them by fuels from foreign sources?”

Notably, Mabus spoke on the very same day that the New York Times reported on a new and highly-critical study issued by the RAND Corporation entitled “Alternative Fuels for Military Applications”.  Mabus flatly refuted the negative RAND assessment, stating bluntly that RAND “didn’t talk to us, and therefore didn’t see what we were already able to do, today, with alternative fuels.” 

Being on the vanguard is not a new role for the Navy:  Mabus noted that the Navy has historically been the leader in ushering in energy technologies into the mainstream, being an early adopter of coal in the mid-1800s, of oil in the early 1900s, and of nuclear in the mid-1900s.

There were probably doubters back then, too.

Renewable Fuel — Without Biomass

by Richard T. Stuebi

In recent years, there’s been a major push for renewable fuels — to reduce our needs for petroleum, as well as to reduce the carbon footprint associated with burning petroleum-based fuels.

The common thread of all of these renewable fuels has been the use of some sort of carbonaceous feedstock — typically biological organisms, till now agricultural crops like corn and soybean, and moving towards cellulosic wastes and algae — from which to produce a liquid fuel for vehicles. In other words, sunlight begets botanical growth begets fuel.

Now comes word of a company emerging from stealth-mode called Joule Biotechnologies, based in Cambridge MA and funded by Flagship Ventures, which has developed what the company is calling the “Helioculture” process for making fuels directly from the photosynthetic conversion of sunlight and CO2 — without requiring any biomass (nor any water, for that matter).

According to its press release, the company’s “SolarFuel” will satisfy current vehicle specifications. Although still a few years away from commercial production, Joule is projecting yields of more than 20,000 gallons per acre per year at long-run economics competitive with oil at $50/barrel.

Of course, entrepreneurs and inventors love to tout new ideas with great potential — potential that is often never achieved. But this idea at least has considerable intuitive appeal, and is very out-of-the-box relative to much of the innovation being pursued in the transportation fuels arena, which makes Joule definitely worth watching in the coming years.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Effective September 1, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.