Clean Energy in the Military: Report Says Biofuel Investments Could Spur Economic Growth

For nearly a decade, the American military has been investing in clean technology as part of a long-term strategy to stabilize its energy costs, save soldiers' lives, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. A critical part of the military's clean energy strategy is finding competitively priced biofuels to power its planes, ships, and other vehicles.

According to a new report, the military's push to develop biofuels could also create jobs and drive growth in the private sector, providing a critical economic boost for rural communities. However, Congress is considering a bill that could derail the military's efforts to expand the use of biofuels. An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) currently before the Senate--sponsored by senators McCain and Inhofe--could significantly set back the military's plans to reduce its dependence on oil.

The military’s reliance on a single fuel source – oil – subjects it to international instability and price spikes. In the long run, our armed forces need a durable, stable supply of domestic biofuels. Developing the right biofuels-- which do not pose a threat to public health, biodiversity, and food security by increasing carbon pollution and degrading land and water--can create a clean, sustainable, domestic source of liquid fuel not only for the military, but eventually in the civilian sector as well.

A new study from NRDC affiliate Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) finds that achieving the military's strategic biofuel goals will have additional benefits for the economy, creating more than 14,000 jobs and generating more than $10 billion of economic activity by 2020.

Meeting the combined demand from the Air Force and Navy alone will require about 770 million gallons of advanced biofuel capacity by 2020.  A typical 50-million gallon biofuel plant in rural America, according the study, can add 550 construction jobs, 333 permanent jobs and $1.2 billion in output to the local economy.

Federal support is already attracting private investment into the biofuel industry. Since 2007, about $3.4 billion of private capital has been invested in building new commercial biofuel facilities. Demand from the military would provide further incentive for private capital investment. As biofuels production scales up, costs will come down--as we've seen in the past with the semiconductor industry--paving the way for sustainable biofuels to be used outside the military, in sectors like commercial aviation.

In its pursuit of cutting-edge technology, the military has long been a driver of innovation and economic growth in America. Aviation, the Internet, and GPS are just a few technologies that have roots in military research and later blossomed in the civilian sector, profoundly changing the way we live.

Blocking the military's strategic efforts to develop biofuels could nip an important transition in the bud. As the E2 report shows, the military's investment in the right kind of biofuels-- sustainably produced, advanced biofuels--will not only advance its primary mission of national security, but could once again drive another advanced technology into the mainstream of American life, benefiting our environment, and our economy as well.

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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