Navy goes green

MIT Sloan students are ready to help

Is it possible for the United States military to drive the development and production of viable, competitive markets for biofuel? MBAs at MIT Sloan School of Management are eager to prove this possibility through a new collaboration with the U.S. Navy beginning this fall.

The project is one among 12 being offered to MBAs through the MIT Sloan Leadership Lab (L-Lab), and highlights a growing interest among MBAs on how energy issues impact national security.

Also leading the charge – Rear Admiral Philip Cullom, Director and Chief of the Naval Operations Energy and Environmental Readiness Division, who spoke to a packed room at MIT Sloan on Thursday, September 16 about the Navy’s energy and environment initiatives, energy efficiency in their various facilities and vehicles, and the effort to replace petroleum-based fuel with next generation biofuels. Admiral Cullom, who expressed an interest in student ideas, then visited a proseminar designed by MIT Sloan lecturer Jason Jay, which addresses sustainability issues.

This collaborative effort and Admiral Cullom’s visit come at a time when climate change has officially been recognized as a threat to U.S. national security. For the first time, Pentagon planners are including climate change among the security threats identified in the Quadrennial Defense Review the Congress, a mandated report slated for publication in February 2011, which updates Pentagon priorities every four years. The Quadrennial Defense Review will detail the potential of climate change to destabilize countries through famine and drought, leading to wars, mass migration, and the mobilization of terrorist recruiting and training amidst the upheaval.

The U.S.’s current dependence on fossil fuel further demands dangerous delivery routes in wartime, particularly in countries with weak infrastructures such as Afghanistan where delivery convoys are prime targets for insurgents. At present, the Department of Defense accounts for 1 percent to 2 percent of the nation’s petroleum use which, along with the country’s high energy consumption, keeps the U.S. dependent on oil from questionable regimes.

Jon Gensler, an MBA candidate at MIT Sloan and an MPA candidate at Harvard Kennedy School, describes himself as “obsessed” with better understanding the energy/national security connection, and making strides to improve it. Before MIT Sloan, Gensler attended West Point, where he studied nuclear engineering. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army upon graduation, he served as a tank platoon leader and infantry mortar platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, and fought in Iraq from 2003-2004. His focus at MIT Sloan is on clean energy.

“I’ve seen how energy policy impacts operations on the ground; our war-fighters and the American people pay a heavy price for cheap energy,” says Gensler whose academic focus is now clean energy and policy. “It is clear that the greatest economic opportunities of this century are wrapped up in solving the energy challenge. But what it also becoming more clear every day is that the same solutions to the energy challenges will help us become a more secure nation, with healthier and cleaner environment.”

He views L-Lab as a step in the right direction. To stimulate the renewable biofuel market, the L-Lab team will coordinate with producers, suppliers, and consumers to identify possible alternatives for accelerating the availability of end products, examine issues associated with the scalability of emerging technologies, and analyze prospects for lowering the delivered prices to consumers. L-Lab students will propose ways to incentivize scaling of the biofuel market and identify what share of the market would be needed to drive scaling.

Another question L-Lab hopes to answer: Would partnering with other large consumers increase the demand signal and thus stimulate growth in the biofuel market, potentially driving the price of biofuel to be competitive with petroleum? Students like Gensler and Jay are hopeful that the Navy, as a potential leading consumer of second generation biofuels, could ultimately establish an ‘early adopter’ demand signal.

“The quest for sustainability touches every sector of our economy and society. It is great to see the military taking decisive steps toward sustainable energy” says Jay who will be teaching three of the core courses for the MIT Sloan’s new Sustainability Certificate, and coordinates the Sloan Sustainability Research Group. “Especially given the track record of DoD and DARPA in catalyzing new technologies like the Internet, this could be a game changer.”

Article courtesy of News@MITSloan