By STEVEN NALLEY
Ray Mabus, Secretary of the U.S. Navy and former Mississippi governor, addressed business leaders, research professors and the media gathered at Mississippi State University’s Colvard Student Union for the sixth annual MSU Biofuels Conference Thursday.
In the conference’s keynote speech and a media session afterward, Mabus talked about the U.S. Navy’s efforts to use alternative energy for at least 50 percent of its energy needs by 2020, the role the Navy plays in bringing energy technologies from research to commercialization and the role Mississippi and MSU play in the future of biofuel.
Mark Keenum, MSU president, introduced Mabus before both the speech and media session.
“We could not be more honored to have him here to kick off our conference and talk about the next phase of energy and reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” Keenum said. “The Navy has been a leader, helping to transform our country over decades — even centuries — to use new forms of energy.”
Keenum said he was also proud of and grateful to MSU for the cutting-edge biofuel research conducted at its Sustainable Energy Research Center. He said MSU is committed to the future of biofuels, and he thanked the scholars and business leaders gathered for their work in the field.
“We’re proud to host so many leaders from around the country at this very important conference,” Keenum said. “Mississippi is very blessed to be so richly endowed with tremendous amounts of natural resources. I see tremendous potential for us in the state, just from the natural resources, to be a leader.”
Mabus said Mississippi as a whole is well positioned for biofuels’ future, not only because of research universities like MSU, but also because its natural resources include every current source of biofuel. Waste from the timber industry, the largest industry in the state, could prove especially useful, he said.
“I do want to brag on the leadership of the MSU system and the community colleges,” Mabus said. “They and President Keenum have seen what the future is going to look like and are moving really aggressively to position Mississippi for an important place in that future.”
Mabus said every military organization needs to assess its own vulnerabilities along with those of its enemies. The Navy’s reliance on foreign oil is one of its vulnerabilities, he said, and this became clear when political turmoil in Libya drove the price of a barrel of oil up $30.
“Every time it goes up $1, it costs the United States Navy an additional $31 million in fuel cost, so that’s a billion-dollar hit,” Mabus said. “The only place we have to go to get that money, the only place, is out of our operating accounts, which means fewer flying hours, fewer sailing days, less training, fewer operations. We simply buy too much fossil fuels from actually and potentially volatile places on Earth. We would never allow some of these countries we buy fuel from to build our ships, to build our aircraft, to build our ground vehicles, but we give them a say in whether our ships sail, our aircraft fly or our ground vehicles operate.”
To resolve this problem, Mabus said he set the goal of 50 percent alternative energy for the U.S. Navy two years ago. These alternative energy sources will need to be price competitive and compatible with existing engines for naval machines.
“We’re doing this for one reason: We’re doing it to be better war fighters,” Mabus said.
“Let me tell you, energy security is national security, energy security is independence, and If we don’t do it as a military force, we are taking a huge risk that is not justified.”
Mabus said the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy each plan to invest $170 million, matched by private industry, to make the biofuel industry commercially viable. The U.S. Navy and the armed forces as a whole have a history of creating demand for new technology which would not otherwise be commercially viable, Mabus said.
“It happened with the Internet, it happened with GPS, and it happened with flat-screen TVs,” Mabus said. “Those were all military firsts and went out to a broader audience. I can’t give you a date when it’s going to be there for the rest of the country, but I can say the military has a history of leading change in things like that.”
The conference continues through Saturday, featuring presentations on biofuel technology from researchers and business professionals from across the country. Before the formal start of the conference, high school students toured the Sustainable Energy Research Center Tuesday, and MSU biofuel professors gave presentations at Annunciation Catholic High School. Rafael Hernandez, MSU chemical engineering professor and director of the conference, said it was a success.
“They were all paying attention and asking questions,” Hernandez said. “They want to learn.”