Air Force Says Biomass-Based Jet Fuel is 10 Times the Cost of JP-8

Just over a year ago, I wrote an article called Is Camelina the Next Jatropha? If you recall, a few years ago jatropha was all the rage. It could grow in marginal soil, didn’t need much water, and could provide fuel that didn’t compete with food. Farmers in developing countries were encouraged to forgo cash crops like cotton to grow jatropha, which wouldn’t be ready for harvest for at least three years after planting.

Then reality began to set in. People learned that while jatropha is drought tolerant, it needs ample rainfall to flourish. There were many firsthand reports from farmers that growing and harvesting jatropha was very labor intensive, and the oil yields were much lower than advertised. India warned that their efforts to produce biofuel from jatropha had stalled, and $5 billion in jatropha-related investments was at risk. The jatropha hype — like so many before it — had met up with harsh reality.

But no worries. Camelina was on the horizon. And I watched it start to proceed down the same hyped trail that jatropha had blazed:

Camelina: It could fuel military aircraft

An oilseed that can grow in arid spots could one day supply fuel for commercial and military aircraft, power Navy ships and give livestock an heart-healthy nutrient.

Camelina produces an oil that shows so much promise as an aviation biofuel Agrofuel source that 14 major airlines have an agreement with a Seattle-based company to buy up to 750 million gallons of the fuel.

Moreover, studies conducted by researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Washington State University have shown camelina can be grown in arid, nonirrigated and marginal soils found in some parts of Eastern Washington.

Researchers have found that the oilseed tolerates cold, needs a minimal amount of water, grows to maturity rapidly, doesn’t require much fertilizer and works well as a rotational crop with wheat.

Sound familiar? When I first started to hear the camelina hype, I thought to myself “Do we ever learn, or is it just embedded in our DNA to hang our energy future on miraculous energy solutions?” I was recently asked a question about our biggest challenge in producing biofuels. I believe the answer to that is in first developing realistic expectations, based on a real understanding of the scale of our energy usage. By maintaining unrealistic expectations, we chase one miracle solution after another, and here is where we end up:

Conaton speaks on AF biomass fuel use at open house

5/23/2011 – JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (AFNS) — Undersecretary of the Air Force Erin Conaton spoke to media about the milestone of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team’s first use of a biomass fuel blend in two of their jets here during the 2011 Joint Service Open House May 20.

The Air Force has a vested interest in the use of biofuels since it’s the largest user of energy in the Department of Defense, the undersecretary said.

According to the USAF Alternative Aviation Fuel Initiative, the military is the largest single consumer of petroleum products in the United States and the Air Force alone uses more than two billion gallons of aviation fuel each year.

Right now, biomass fuel is about 10 times the cost of JP-8, the current military aviation jet fuel in use, Ms. Conaton said.

In these days of constricted budgets, the fuel the Air Force will buy needs to be cost competitive. When the biofuel industry is able to provide the quantity of fuel the Air Force requires at a good price, “we will be ready to buy from them,” the under secretary said.

Kerosene-based jet fuel like JP-8 presently sells for just over $3 per gallon. If Mr. Conaton means literally 10 times the price, then we are looking at $30 a gallon for camelina-based jet fuel. (The blend in the demonstration flight was 50-50 hydrocracked camelina and JP-8, as described in this article). Ironically, this was about the price Solix admitted that it costs them to make biodiesel from algae. Yet you very rarely ever see honest admissions of what some of these biofuels cost; would-be producers simply take today’s price, assume a Moore’s Law-like improvement in technology and in sizing up facilities, and say “We expect to produce fuel for $2 a gallon.” These projections are generally unrealistic, and that keeps our energy policy mired in perpetual delusion.

I do think costs for a lot of these fuels will continue to come down, but an order of magnitude drop in cost is probably unrealistic. Yet there is a very large disconnect between where the economics actually are, and where producers think they will end up. That causes companies to make claims that are all-too-often simply not credible, and when those major cost savings don’t materialize, then it hurts the credibility of the biofuel sector.

One other item of note from the press release was that the fuel needs to be cost-competitive. I don’t know of any bio-based jet fuel that is cost competitive at current oil prices. Maybe a palm-based oil could compete on price head-to-head with petroleum. But most oil-based crops simply can’t compete with even $100 oil. And if that is the metric the military decides they must meet, then the Great Green Fleet that Tom Hicks described in this interview will only materialize after oil prices are much higher than they are today.