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Military may play key role toward making biofuels commercially viable

A lot of years and a lot of miles have gone by since Ray Mabus attended a high school honors program at Mississippi State University, where he says, “I might today be an alumnus, but for my father.

“He was a graduate of Ole Miss and he told me, ‘You can go to any college you want — I’ll pay for you to go to Ole Miss.’”

Laughing at the recollection, Mabus stands before a Mississippi State audience as a former Mississippi governor, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and now one of the most powerful leaders in the nation’s military, Secretary of the Navy.

As keynote speaker at the recent MSU Biofuels Conference, he outlined a commitment by the Navy and Marine Corps to obtain 50 percent of their energy needs from sources other than fossil fuels by 2020. This on the heels of President Obama’s announcement in August that he wants the U.S. military to begin a concentrated program to wean itself from its dependence on oil.

The plans are not without critics, chief among them the oil industry. The Oil & Gas Journal, an industry publication, termed the Navy’s plan “a boondoggle.” Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., was quick to denounce the president’s plan, saying it would be a threat to his state’s 21 ethanol plants.

But, Mabus says, it’s the logical next step in the move to more efficient, renewable energy sources to replace a diminishing and unstable oil supply.

And to the critics, he responds that the military “has a history in leading change and making products commercially viable that otherwise might not have been. It happened with GPS, cell phones, the Internet, flat screen TVs, and a host of other technologies.

“The Navy has been in the forefront of energy change. We changed from wind to coal in the 1850s, from coal to oil in the early part of the 20th century, we pioneered nuclear, with submarines, in the 1950s. Every single time we made a big change, there were naysayers who said it couldn’t be done. I’m absolutely, positively convinced the naysayers are going to be wrong again.

“The Navy and Marine Corps are going to innovate and adapt, and we’re going to come out of this victorious.”

To help alternate energy make the leap to commercialization, the Navy, the USDA, and the Department of Energy will each invest up to $170 million, matched by private industry.

Mississippi is “really well-positioned” to be a part of the transformation, Mabus says. “Every one of the things that have to be grown for biofuels can be grown here.”

The work that’s being done at MSU’s Sustainable Energy Research Center and at other Mississippi universities and community colleges to utilize forest and crop wastes puts the state in position to “play a key role in this future,” he says.

Noting that his family is in the timber business, Mabus said, “I’ve always wondered why all those stumps, limbs, and tops that just lay there on the ground, or were burned, or plowed under, couldn’t be used for energy. Same for agricultural wastes — cotton stalks, rice stalks, anything with a cellular structure.

“I want to brag on MSU and the state’s community colleges; they’ve seen how important biofuels are to the future and they’ve moved really aggressively to insure that Mississippi has a key role in that future.”

Mark Keenum, MSU president, said Mississippi “is richly endowed with tremendous amounts of natural resources, particularly wood products and non-food biomass production capabilities.

“I see this as a tremendous potential for our state, from the standpoint of natural resources, to be a world leader in the  the arena of biofuels development. The work that’s going on here, interdisciplinary research at our Sustainable Energy Research Center, really puts us on the map as a national center in developing these new technologies and innovations. I’m very proud that MSU is in the forefront of this exciting technology.”

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