Like many bioenergy proponents, Larry Fillmer takes a sober view of what it will take to put the United States squarely on the road to energy security.
But failing to complete this journey presents even bigger challenges, he believes.
Speaking at the Fourth Annual Alabama Energy Conference, Fillmer, executive director of Auburn University’s Natural Resources Management and Development Institute, raised concerns about the current energy picture and how unexpected disruptions of the global energy supply could affect U.S. national security.
Fillmer cited the work of Theresa Sabonis-Helf, an associate professor at the U. S. National War College, who recently presented a bipartisan briefing on the current global energy picture to members of Congress.
Global demand for energy resources will intensify in the next couple of decades, increasing by about 43 percent by the year 2030 and 15 percent by 2010, Sabonis-Helf projects.
She perceives two looming threats — first, growing strains on the capacity to supply increasing energy needs and second, a catastrophic event, such as another terrorist attack.
In the past, world energy crises have occurred on the supply side, such as when Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) established an oil embargo in the late 1970s. However, future crises may involve demand-related problems. This demand is intensifying by the day, largely due to the increased energy needs of India and China, two rising economic powers.
Currently, OPEC, which controls roughly 30 percent of the world’s oil, is operating at capacity. And that is what concerns Sabonis-Helf, because OPEC lacks the refining capacity or extra reserves to ease the effects of a major oil disruption following an emergency.
Any event, such as Hurricane Katrina or a disruption in an international transportation site, such as the Strait of Hormuz, could spark a crisis, she believes
“So given these challenges, as well as the prospect of oil prices at $100 a barrel, it’s really imperative that we seek and spend time on developing alternative energy,” Fillmer says, adding that it’s “just in our national interest.”
The good news is that more Americans than ever support a push toward renewable energy sources, Fillmer says.
He cited a recent poll by the Renewable Fuels Now Coalition showing that 74 percent of Americans want to see renewable fuels playing a bigger part in the nation’s future. Among those polled, 87 percent expressed active support for an expanded federal role in developing renewable energy.
But the quest for security will not be easy, Fillmer says, especially considering that increasing biofuel production will have to be carefully balanced with increasing demand for food stocks, which are projected to double by 2050.
As Fillmer sees it, the challenge for NRMDI and its Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts will be helping develop an agricultural infrastructure to accommodate energy production as well as to balance the need for food and fuel.
This calls for developing engineering technologies to produce liquid fuels, synthetic gas and bioenergy.
Two major challenges will involve finding the right types of renewable energy feed stocks and developing cost-effective ways to harvest and transport these feed stocks to plants for conversion into fuel, Fillmer says.