Despite Skepticism, Military Commanders Embrace Alternative Fuels

Our fighting men and women may not be deriving much benefit from alternative fuel research, a recent RAND Corporation survey argues. Among their main complaints? Research into unproven and potentially ineffective alternative fuels sucks up too much government money. In a curious twist, the military is contesting RAND’s findings. Let’s take a look.

The New York Times succinctly lays out RAND’s case against further investment in biofuels or alternative energy sources for military vehicles:

“The report…argued that most alternative-fuel technologies were unproven, too expensive or too far from commercial scale to meet the military’s needs over the next decade.

In particular, the report argued that the Defense Department was spending too much time and money exploring experimental biofuels derived from sources like algae or the flowering plant camelina, and that more focus should be placed on energy efficiency as a way of combating greenhouse gas emissions.”

This brings to the fore an important public policy question: Who should be conducting alternative fuel research? Analysts at RAND complain that the $300 million provided to the armed forces for alternative fuel research is wasted capital. But as we’ve seen in the past, military research and development is a cumulative process that can lead to breakthroughs like the Internet, if only research is allowed to continue.

Even the military is skeptical of proposals to gut research into alternative energy. One general bemoaned the difficulty of securing fossil fuel supplies in Afghanistan. Another pointed to the success of the U.S.S. Makin Island, an amphibious craft that runs partially on electricity. The Makin Island has already saved nearly a million gallons of gasoline.

More importantly, the military can serve as a catalyst for innovation and improvement in currently underperforming alternative energies by using its buying power to, as the New York Times says, “create markets” in new energy technologies. Innovators will clamor for the chance to have their engine or turbine adopted by the military. Investors will see a new company with a big – and often open-ended – contract.

Despite skepticism, the military appears committed to its goal of reducing fossil fuel usage fleetwide. The real indicator for success will likely be whether ingenuity and $300 million in seed capital can produce long-term positive gains, not only for our armed forces, but for American consumers.