Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels

CAPT T. A. “Ike” Kiefer, USN

The United States cannot achieve energy security through biofuels, and even the attempt is ironically achieving effects contrary to “clean” and “green” environmental goals and actively threatening global security.

For a rebuttal from DoE, DoD, and the Author please view the PDF Here.

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Charles Hall 3/2/2013 10:03:22 AM

I am the initiator of, and probably the present authority on, energy return on investment (EROI) and its implications, although many other distinguished scientists have contributed to this issue. While I have some quibbles and minor corrections, I believe that Captain Kiefer in "Energy Insecurity, The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels" has done an excellent job of summarizing the scientific literature on the subject of EROI and its implications for the U.S. Navy. I think this an excellent report, and I could not find any major flaws in a first reading. As in any such scientific study it is fair to subject it to peer review and further analysis, but I cannot see at this time how its conclusions are likely to be changed in any substantive way. The official rebuttals that I have seen, while occasionally making a good point, generally contain more confusion than insightful criticism, and do not reflect, in my opinion, familiarity with the long and carefully developed literature on EROI that has been developed in hundreds of scientific publications. The criticisms do not decrease the validity of Captain Kiefer's study in any important way. I believe that Captain Kiefer has done a great service to the Navy and our country by pointing out the extreme limitations of liquid biomass fuels at this time for other than very limited applications, such as (perhaps) a farm tractor. As the military faces today serious cuts it would be wise not to throw money (or energy) away on non-solutions.

Charles A. S. Hall


College of Environmental Science and Forestry

State University of New York, Syracuse

Rick Munroe 3/4/2013 6:54:00 PM

This review of Capt. Kiefer's study has been posted: Also, I entirely support the observations of Dr. Hall. - Rick M

Dr. Thomas E. Elam 3/19/2013 4:55:34 PM

Since 2007 I have carefully studied the impacts of corn-based ethanol on the U.S. food system. I can attest that the conclusions in this paper regarding the impact of our ethanol policies on food costs and security are in complete agreement with my work. Every time we go to the grocery store or a restaurant we pay a fuel tax in the form of higher prices to subsidize the forced diversion of grain to ethanol production. In 2012 the increase in U.S. food production costs versus 2005, before the first ethanol mandate, was well over $70 billion. We have also caused global food cost increases with this policy, helping destabilize the Mideast and Africa. Basically, what very little, if anything, we may have added to fuel security has been far overwhelmed by decreased food security. For those who don't believe that food supply and price are politically important you need to study the root cause of the French Revolution. If you could, ask King Louis VI if lack of food can cause security issues!

Christopher Calder 5/29/2013 11:22:13 AM

Let's hope the new US energy secretary will end the counterproductive and futile effort to use biofuels, windmills, and solar panels as a replacement for fossil fuels, which is a complete impossibility. FOOD = ENERGY & ENERGY = FOOD. The renewable energy fad is literally starving the world. SEE: *Biofuels, Windmills, and War*

CAPT T.A. Ike Kiefer, USN (Ret) 4/16/2014 8:48:55 PM

Subject: EU votes to phase out renewable energy subsidies ree-market-301466 This is huge news. The Europeans jumped into low-EROI, arbitrarily intermittent, fossil fuel dependent, non-renewable-mineral-dependent "renewables" ahead of the US and with more enthusiasm, and now they are climbing back out of the hole. This change in sentiment is also coming back to us across the Atlantic, but is not fully here yet, even though global investment in "renewable" energy peaked in 2011 and has fallen for 2 consecutive years. Europeans citizens have recently been rioting because of years of energy price increases brought about by trying to force expensive and intermittent solar and wind onto the grid, and competing with food agriculture and biodiversity to displace motor fuel. The politicians are finally realizing their careers are on the line and they have to do whatever it takes to bring down energy prices. We would be wise to learn this lesson from them and abort the cycle sooner than they did. Ending subsidies is not quite the same as truly forcing all energy sources to compete fairly in a free market. Mandates and discriminatory regulations must also be changed. But this is at least a major step in the direction of sanity.

DoD Rebuttal 5/19/2014 8:23:20 AM

Department of Defense Rebuttal – Air Force Strategic Studies Quarterly Article, “Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels”

The article titled “Energy Insecurity, The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels” highlights interesting but ultimately misleading opinions on the challenges the Department of Defense faces in harnessing energy innovation.

The Department of Defense invests in various energy supplies and technologies to advance military missions and improve defense capabilities. To that end, the Department spends about $15 billion a year on petroleum fuels for military operations – about 2% of our total budget – and more than $1 billion on initiatives to improve operational energy use. Almost all of those initiatives are aimed at reducing the amount of fuel required in military operations.

As one of the world’s largest consumers of liquid fuels, the Department does have an interest in diversification of our supplies, especially for our legacy fleet of ships and planes, which will be with us for decades to come. Since 2003, DoD has made a small but important investment in alternative fuels, mostly R&D by the military Services to ensure that defense equipment can operate on a range of alternative fuels. The Department has a policy of only purchasing operational quantities of such fuels if they are cost competitive with conventional fuels. References to per-gallon prices DoD is paying for alternative fuels refers to small quantities of test fuel purchased as part of R&D programs. Additionally, the Department is only looking to purchase drop-in alternative fuels for tactical use, and not ethanol or biodiesel.

On questions about the future of commodity markets and properties of various fuels, DoD relies on the expertise of the Department of Energy (DOE), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the private sector.

The July 2012 Department of Defense Alternative Fuels Policy for Operational Platforms Alternative Fuels Policy, which governs military investments in alternative fuels, and other materials about energy programs at the Department of Defense, including a DOE rebuttal of multiple factual inaccuracies in this article, are posted at

Adam L. Rosenberg, PhD
Deputy Director for Technology Strategy
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs

DoE Rebuttal 5/19/2014 8:33:54 AM

Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office Comments on Air Force Strategic Studies Quarterly Article, “Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels”

General Comments

Although the author has done an extensive literature reading in the biofuels area, the paper does not have any analysis of critical issues of energy systems including petroleum systems and biofuel systems. Instead, it is a summary of literature. Furthermore, the summary of biofuel literatures in this paper has been tailored with literatures with negative points of views and results for biofuels. There are equally important, if not more important, literatures with credible analyses and objective results of biofuels, which were either overlooked or ignored by the author.

The author used energy return on investment (EROI) as a key indicator to advocate if an energy system should be invested in or not. If energy choices are made simplistically on the basis of EROI, society would eliminate electricity generation systems, since generation of electricity causes significant energy losses (for example, coal-fired electric power plants lose two-thirds of energy inputs). While the author presented the definition of EROI in a formula, he did not specify what energy types to be included in EROI calculations. Furthermore, the author did not calculate EROI himself for key energy systems that he advocated or opposed. Instead, he cited EROI values from various publications without realizing or by ignoring that scopes and system boundaries in the different studies he chose to cite could be very different. For example, the EROI values of 8:1 cited by the author for petroleum fuels do not include petroleum energy contained in gasoline or diesel. However, some of the EROI values he cited for biofuel systems appear to include renewable energy contained in biofuels. This major inconsistency in the paper caused invalid conclusions in the paper based on cited EROI values. The problem is clearly shown in Figure 1 with counterintuitive results for some of the energy systems in the figure.

The author was confused with present purchase prices of certain fuels for fleet testing versus the long-term goals of government biofuel research and development (R&D) investment. The present purchase prices reflect current production at very limited scale and limited technology advancement. Government R&D investments are intended to overcome key technology barriers so that in the long term biofuels can become vital national energy options. If one uses the status quo to decide what society should or should not do, many technology innovations and civilization advancements would not have occurred.

The author did not go to the level of understanding of quantitative results and conclusions of many of the literatures cited in the paper. This misinterpretation by the author, which occurs throughout the paper, resulted in invalid conclusions. For example, he quoted the total energy use that includes the energy in the biomass for algae-based fuel systems from Frank et al. Algae may be inefficient in converting renewable energy from sunshine to liquid fuels, but the earth is not limited by the solar energy it receives. On the other hand, the earth does have a finite amount of petroleum resources. The author fails to address resource depletion issues in comparing the petroleum energy systems and biofuel systems.

The author used the term “perpetual motion machine” to characterize biofuel systems. Biofuel systems work in reality in contrast to that mischaracterization because the author failed to take into account the solar energy that is inputted into biofuel systems. That is, biofuel energy systems are designed to convert low-quality, somewhat unlimited, solar energy into liquid fuel energy.

Some of the studies cited in the paper are out of date. Many citations in the paper are from web postings, which formal journal papers would not be allowed to cite.

Specific Comments

p. 115, 2nd para. Based on the congressional definition of energy security cited here, prices are not included in the definition, but the author inserted prices into his interpretation.

p. 123, the biodiesel’s low energy density relative to petroleum diesel is a fuel property issue, not an energy security issue. Otherwise, one might argue that hydrogen and natural gas, among many other fuels, would have severe energy security issues.

p. 123, it seems that the author was confused by assuming that biodiesel would be hydrotreated to produce renewable diesel. In practice, oils from vegetation and animal fats, among other feedstocks, are hydrotreated to produce renewable diesel without going through production of biodiesel.

p. 125, the last line. The statement of “corn ethanol lifecycle GHG emissions more than triple those of petroleum fuels” is with exclusion of GHG emissions of petroleum fuel combustion.

p. 134–36, the section on water problems of biofuels.

The author proposed a “peak water” theory parallel to “peak oil.” This is misleading because petroleum oil is extracted from an existing reserve and is not renewable; therefore, there could be a peak. Water, as we see it in rivers or ground water, is a part of the global hydrologic cycle, in which water is input as rainfall or snowmelt, consumed in a form of evapotranspiration by plants or evaporation through lakes, seas, rivers, and human activities, and then back to the atmosphere. In this hydrologic cycle, only a small fraction of water is lost when incorporated into a solid form. For example, water could be trapped with oil sands in a large retention pond of an oil field. Separation of water from the oil sands slurry in the pond is expected to take 100 years.

Water consumption and water footprint. The author appears confused between two basic concepts: water consumption and water footprint and selectively compared results from one to the other. Water consumption refers to the water consumed through a particular production activity/process or a stage in product life cycle (often to a specific water resource) while water footprint represents water consumed through a product life cycle (often for all the water resources). The two have a distinctive system boundary, methodology, and targeted resource and carry different meanings. Therefore, results from water consumption cannot be compared with results from water footprint. In an attempt to compare water consumption between various fuels, the author cited petroleum gasoline water footprint (ref. 96) and biofuel water footprint (ref. 97). It is important to point out that reference 96 is not a water footprint but a water consumption study focusing on two main stages of fuel production – fuel resource extraction/growing and fuel processing/production – for both gasoline and biofuels (from corn and cellulosic) and estimated surface and ground water consumption. Reference 97 is a water footprint study that focuses on green water (rain fall), blue water (surface and ground water), and grey water – which is a volume equivalency of the water required to dilute a certain amount of residue N fertilizer in rivers, not physically based consumption – for fuel life cycle. A comparison between the two data sets is inconsistent and meaningless. In fact, the blue water consumption comparison data required for petroleum gasoline and biofuel obtained under the same methodology is available in reference 96: conventional gasoline water consumption: 2.2-4.4 L/L ethanol BTU equivalent (US conventional), 11-160 L/L ethanol (corn), and 1.9-4.6 L/L biofuel (cellulosic). Unfortunately, the author chose not to use the data sets that derived from the same methodology for comparison.

Seawater desalination and argument. The author presented that current biofuel production cannot provide enough fuel to operate a seawater desalination plant. First, the desalination process operates on electricity as a fuel source, not ethanol. Second, current desalination plants produce fresh water for agricultural irrigation for food and human consumption, not for biofuels. Let us assume that biofuel crop is irrigated with desalinated water – which is blue water consumption or blue water use in the water footprint methodology. The water produced from the plant, 126-970 L/L ethanol equivalent of energy input, would meet the irrigation and process water requirement for biofuels produced in the U.S. Based on above section (3) (ref. 96), 11-160 L of blue water would be needed to produce a liter of ethanol - for corn ethanol produced from the regions responsible for 90% of ethanol in the U.S. After irrigation and process water consumption, there is still 115-810 L of desalinated water in excess per L ethanol produced. Therefore, in the U.S. Midwest, under the base case and current conditions, corn ethanol is able to not only provide enough fuel to power a desalination plant to produce water for irrigating the crop, but also contribute leftover fuel to power the vehicles. This is totally opposite of the conclusion drawn by the author. The keyreason for the difference is that the author used the water footprint methodology results, where in addition to irrigation and process water consumption, rainfall and grey water (dilution water for chemical fertilizer residue) are included. Note that desalinated freshwater satisfies irrigation water needs, but would not displace rainfall, which contributes to a significant portion of the water footprint.

Zia Haq, PhD
Lead Analyst/DPA Coordinator
Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office

Ike Kiefer 9/19/2014 12:10:35 PM

Total corn ethanol production for 2013-2014 harvest year is just in, and it is 14,095 billion gallons (unofficial). Same as 2011. Strange how production which grew exponentially from 2000 to 2009 suddenly plateaued three years ago right at the limits of what the EPA will subsidize for gasoline blending. Strong objective evidence that corn ethanol is not viable without the subsidies, even after nine years of multi-billion-dollar EPA and USDA assistance, and is still unwanted by consumers. See Hightower Ethanol Production Report.

Ike Kiefer 12/9/2014 11:10:28 AM

Brazil and Google Reverse Course on Renewable Energy See: My Thoughts: Wind and solar and biofuels are not economically competitive because of their inherent defects: poor energy balance, uncontrollable intermittency, weather-dependence, low power density, geographic remoteness. They are also all dependent upon energy and chemical inputs from fossil fuels and other non-renewable minerals, which completely undermines their claims of being renewable. High lifecycle EROI, high energy density, high power density, and fully-controllable delivery are the imperatives for 21st-century primary energy sources. Wind and solar and biofuels fail in all four. When cheap and effective electricity storage finally arrives, it will help the EROI of wind and solar, but do nothing for their other deficiencies and nothing for biofuels. Some form of nuclear energy is our only long term option to transition away from fossil fuels sustainable for centuries to something sustainable for millennia.

Ike Kiefer 12/9/2014 11:13:24 AM

EPA Still Under Fire from Congress There are three bills in the House of Representatives currently pending to rein in the EPA. One is the Secret Science Reform Act sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz). It is best explained here . Since 1997 the EPA has claimed its ever more expansive series of air quality regulations were achieving billions in health benefits. It turns out almost all of the benefit have been calculated based on reduction of a single pollutant, small particles under 2.5 mm in size, aka PM2.5. It also turns out the calculations are highly suspect and based on only 2 studies more than 30 years old of a generation dominated by smokers. It also appears that EPA has been double-counting benefits in reductions for new regulations even though those reductions have already been achieved by previous regulations. Furthermore, they continue to linearly extrapolate benefits far below the threshold where even the old studies indicate there is any health benefit. The result is that new regulations that are known to impose multi-billion-dollar costs are likely only to achieve a few million dollars in benefits. A minority in the senate has been onto this for awhile If this bill passes, I believe it has the genuine potential to stop the new Clean Air Action section 111(d) rule against coal plants as well as the Renewable Fuel Standard program that is subsidizing biofuels in their tracks, as the assumptions and research underpinning both suddenly become open to outside scrutiny. It will likely face an Obama veto, but the publicity may still be enough to cause the EPA to retrench, especially in light of the scandals involving key architects of these regulations such as con artist felon John Beale and his sugar daddy in the EPA Office of Policy, Robert Brenner (skip to the 1:00 point in this video for a refresher ( ). There are also two more bills much like this in the House: the Science Advisory Board Reform Act sponsored by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah); and the Promoting New Manufacturing Act sponsored by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La).

Ike Kiefer 12/10/2014 1:21:46 PM

According to the EPA, a rhino is a unicorn. They have effectively dropped the requirement that cellulosic fuels be made from cellulosic feedstock. You have to shovel in some cellulose (or just some trash in general) at the front end of your process, but they don't care how much actually participates in the chemistry to make your fuel. There is one broken link in the story. The National Academy of Sciences paper can be found at .

Ike Kiefer 7/15/2015 5:46:25 AM

The KiOR company collapsed last year and Gevo management just dumped all their stock this month. Both of these biofuel companies continued to paint rosy pictures and promise commercial production right up until the end. The truth is they were losing money on every gallon produced. As I found in my research, making liquid biofuels is a perpetual motion shellgame that depends hugely on fossil fuel inputs that the perpetrators try to hide -- but physics can't be fooled. Dupont and POET and Abengoa are each sitting on huge quarter-billion-dollar cellulosic ethanol plants and trying to hide from their investors the same truth: they are going to lose money on every gallon. The U.S. military is trying to hide its biofuels folly by sinking money into biorefineries instead of paying for gallons directly, but it's time for those biorefineries to deliver. Their price for neat biofuel will still be more than $20/gal, and they will be pushing out 10% biofuel blended with 90% petroleum fuel to stay below the price caps. That is just more sham. As the author of the article, I would love to debate the DOE and DOD heads of the departments who submitted the rebuttals to this piece, and the Secretary of the Navy toward whom it was originally directed. It is time to hold present leadership accountable for pouring millions of taxpayer dollars down this hole when the nation is $18 trillion in debt and cutting our military while trying to fuel it with the most expensive sources possible.

William Eliason 9/3/2015 3:21:07 PM

In my personal view, this is an example of the all of the negatives some accuse the DoD of doing programmatically. A few industrious but not well meaning industry types buy a few small think tanks to support their industry, get some brass who did not take many econ or chemical engineering classes to agree, and this is what you get: We will ALWAYS have all the oil we need period. And you can quote me. I will take any serious beverage wager that I will never sit in a gas station line for a fill up again in my lifetime except for shortages due to natural disaster. Biofuels is a stupid idea. Just ask Brazil. Bad environmentally. Bad economically except for a few. You proved that DoD and USN were logrolling with industry against a nonexistent threat with a bad idea and worse science that would eventually not succeed. Given the eventual inability of the USN to muster even one credible challenge or author to dispute your paper says a great deal. "If we ignore him, he will go away. Besides we know what we are doing." ¯ Beware the experts.

Ike Kiefer 9/3/2015 3:27:09 PM

Why I called it Snake Oil. Gevo is latest to crash and burn, while their management begs for more money all the way to the bitter end. This is Cello, Range Fuels, Syntroleum, Dynamic Fuels, KiOR, KL-Energy, INEOS Bio, Amyris, . . . OSD Operational Energy and DOE Biotechnologies Office and SecNav should host a debate or panel discussion on military biofuels. Happy to participate.

Charles S. Hall 9/3/2015 3:33:11 PM

I am too old (72) to take this bet but I do forsee the end of cheap oil, (but not for a while.) So Why not. I'll bet one quart of good whiskey that in a decade oil will be over $200 a barrel in today's prices. There is lots of oil left , but my educated guess is that EROI will continue to decline, eventually making it too expensive for today's massive use. But it will take a decade or two minimum to get there. Incidentally real oil, not all the biofuel or ngl etc., EIA. Etc counts, has been at more or less a peak since 2005.