Alternative Energy: Why the President’s Portfolio Approach Will Make us Leaders

February, 16 / 2011

By: Michael Wynne, 21st Secretary, U.S. Air Force

The president gets it. It is refreshing to see. Although I was Secretary of the U.S. Air Force under the Bush administration, Obama and I see eye-to-eye. As a very early, and sometimes lonely advocate for alternative fuels for the military and the rest of America, I am emboldened by his portfolio approach to the future of energy.

President Obama’s insistence for the creation and use of new energy sources in America is about creating a better future and owning the world leadership we have taken for granted for decades. It is not about ‘conserving by wearing sweaters’; it is recognition that innovation and initiative must replace the ‘woe is me’ atmosphere of peak oil prospects, blown-out wells, and natural gas pipelines. President Obama correctly emphasized a portfolio approach. We need new sources of energy electricity, but more importantly we need technologies that tackle petroleum and liquid transportation fuels. He called for a galvanized, focused, and ambitious America to secure our energy future — calling it this generation’s Sputnik moment. He couldn’t be more right. In 1957, the Sputnik call-to-arms sparked an instant and close partnership between the U.S. government and private industry. Working together, NASA, Grumman, Boeing, and others put a man on the moon. We need that same partnership ethic today if we are to secure true energy independence and our position at the lead of energy innovation.

The U.S. Air Force is the largest consumer of petroleum in the military. Every day, it burns more than 7.0 million gallons of oil. And where do we get that oil? In 2010, the U.S. spent more than $300 billion to import 4.2 billion barrels of oil, largely to make fuels needed to meet military and civilian transportation demands. One of the greatest threats to our economic and national security is the need to secure foreign oil. So, when President Obama confirmed a commitment to develop domestically renewable petroleum replacements from biomass, also known as bio-crude, he put a stake in the ground that alternatives are not just good for the environment, they’re critical to our national and economic security. Bio-crudes are compatible with the DoD’s current fleet of tanks, ships, and planes, which will be in use for the next 30 years.

Make no mistake; there has been enormous progress in pursuing a wide variety of alternative energy sources, including bio-crudes. Many efforts have been sparked by grants from the Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The FAA introduced CAAFI standards and the Air Force and the Navy are using their limited marketplace muscle to set standards and demand for new fuels. The Navy, with a centralized fueling requirement, announced the Great Green Fleet Initiative, which concentrates their market power to encourage bio-crude development. These are the visionaries and implementers that the president is relying on to push energy technology forward. Are there critics? Yes. There were during the Space Race and they exist today. They’re still asking the same question: “Is this worth it?” If you want a different future, you must risk the critics.

The president has set the vision. The military has led the way in setting standards and using their market power to provide industry with guideposts. Now, we need industry, alongside our engineering and scientific institutions, to identify and help remove barriers to new transportation fuels while balancing some of the new pressures for a cleaner and stable climate. Let the National Academy establish extraction-to-consumption standards, so we can accurately document a fuel’s impact on our increasingly precious earth. Let’s not have advocates for one technique or another develop political constituents that substitute for science. We have plans for sequestering carbon dioxide, but is anyone asking for how long? We block nuclear because of long half lives, yet we don’t ask about the impact of converting cropland to fuel. In fact, RAND recently published a critique of alternative fuels that takes swipes at land conversion and deforestation. I would suggest that their broad brush be narrowed, and they focus on a future where non-arable land can be turned to farmed land, and non-potable water can be converted to energy production.

The role of the U.S. government is clear: set the standards and support a portfolio of technologies. Then, let the technologies self-select against the standards and enable a future for America that includes domestically produced crude so we no longer rely on imports of foreign petroleum. I salute the president as a visionary. This is our time to make an impact — from energy independence to jobs to protecting the environment. Let’s not squander it. Yes, the president gets it. And, so should we, so we can pioneer the way.