The U.S. has just launched a five-year, $125 million alternative energy research project with India, aimed partly at developing biofuels from non-food crops. The biofuel project, funded by the Department of Energy and led by the University of Florida, has the goal of managing climate change and reducing U.S. dependence on petroleum products — and that adds an intriguing element of geopolitics and petrodollars to the mix.
Many cooks in the alternative energy kitchen
The new endeavor, somewhat cumbersomely tagged the Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, (JCERDC), also includes solar and energy efficiency components led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The biofuel component totals about $21 million for a team that includes the University of Florida, University of Missouri, Virginia Tech, Montclair State University, Texas A&M University, Show Me Energy Cooperative, and Green Technologies.
The Indian team is headed up by the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology — but wait, there’s more. The project is part of a larger endeavor that provides for the U.S. to leverage private sector investment in an international fund focused on developing South Asia’s alternative energy resources.
Biofuels over here and over there
Here in the U.S., the new project will give a boost to the ambitious U.S. biofuel program that President Obama announced last year. That program was designed partly to help create sustainable economic growth in rural communities through new biofuel crop farming, transportation and refining operations.
There was also an interesting international potential in last year’s announcement, since it teamed the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the U.S. Navy. The Navy’s role is to serve as an early-adopting market for new biofuel products, helping to build economies of scale that will lower the price of biofuel for the consumer market.
That’s all part of a broad Department of Defense push to wean itself from petroleum, and in terms of Navy operations, that goes beyond a strong domestic biofuel economy in the U.S. It also means developing a strategic chain of alternative fuel providers in countries around the globe where governments and social conditions are more stable than in the Middle East.
Though military strategy is the primary focus, the Navy also plays a major role in global humanitarian efforts, and in order to sustain those efforts a reliable network of fuel suppliers will need to supplant the increasingly risky, price spike-bedeviled petroleum trade (besides, according to the latest offering from Hollywood, you never know where those pesky alien invaders will strike next).
Connecting the dots to global energy security
The Navy’s interest in global biofuel security was illustrated earlier this year, when top Navy brass visited a biofuel conference in Australia to underscore the Department of Defense’s interest in algae biofuel. With President Obama’s strategic defense plan shifting focus from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific, it looks like the biofuel partnership with India is another important piece of the puzzle.
As for the mockery that the President met with earlier this year when he enthused over algae biofuel, as a well known figure in Indian history famously said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you…”