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