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Armed Forces: Biofuels

Volume 753: debated on Monday 31 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to increase the use of biofuels by the armed forces.

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence uses biofuels for road transport where EU legislation obliges manufacturers to include a percentage of biofuels in the fuel they produce. The use of biofuels for marine and aviation use is governed by the requirements and approvals of the department’s equipment manufacturers. The Ministry of Defence is encouraging these manufacturers to work towards adopting biofuels in the future.

Will the Minister put this on his agenda and take it forward? Is he aware that by 2020 the United States navy will be using ships and aircraft that use some 50% biofuels? These are not from farm produce; they are from algae and other fuels. The US air force is flying F18 high-performance jets on 50% biofuels. The Italians and the Dutch are using it, so will he—particularly on this day, bearing in mind the United Nations report—go back to his department and say, “We ought to be up there with them using biofuels in ships, planes and ground transport”? Will he also take that matter to NATO and, preferably, keep the House informed of his progress?

My Lords, we are aware that the United States and the other countries mentioned by the noble Lord are experimenting with biofuels in their naval vessels and aircraft. The results of the performance of the fuels are being shared through equipment manufacturers and international forums such as the Air and Space Interoperability Council. The defence equipment and support fuel team regularly engages with manufacturers to understand the most recent research and how this might apply to the MoD’s fuel requirements in the future. Biofuels, however, are not the only answer, and the MoD will use the most appropriate solution available to reduce fossil fuel consumption, whether that is through using alternative technology or equipment, reducing activity levels, using alternative fuels or interoperability with our allies.

My Lords, is there not more than one respectable view as to the desirability of biofuels, given the extensive agricultural facilities required to produce them?

My Lords, I am aware of the concerns about biofuels competing with food production but, as I said in my opening response, the MoD uses biofuels for road transport where EU regulations oblige fuel manufacturers to include them, and only for that.

Does the Minister accept that most innovation in this country relating to fuels and materials starts from the motorsport industry? Have the Armed Forces picked up any tips from that thriving industry?

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord asked that question. I assure him that we are working very closely with the motorsport industry, which—as the noble Lord knows better than most—is expert in lightweighting and energy-efficient use of fuel. All Formula 1 engines have advanced energy recovery systems that reduce their fuel capacity by 40% and reduce their engine size, too, but must deliver the same power output. Race cars recover and store significantly increased energy from braking and from their turbochargers.

My Lords, they are using more biofuels in the United States, particularly in the Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter and—as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said—in the navy’s farm-to-fleet project. That has had a significant effect on the change of use from food crops to biofuels. Taking a slightly different line from other questions, will the Minister tell the House that the Army, Navy and Air Force will look closely into the development of biofuels and how it affects the reduction of food production in the UK?

My Lords, I stand by my response to my noble friend earlier. As I said, this is for use only where UK regulations oblige fuel manufacturers to include them. As that use is both limited and obligatory, the MoD has no plans to conduct any form of appraisal.

My Lords, the noble Lord must agree that we have solved some of these fuel problems by having fewer and fewer ships and fewer and fewer aircraft. I looked historically at the 1950s—I needed to for a certain reason—and, on average, every year we commissioned between 15 and 20 warships. How many ships were commissioned in the latest financial year?

My Lords, the noble Lord is using his imagination to try to tempt me to discuss the number of ships. This Question is about biofuels.

My Lords, in replying to two supplementary questions, my noble friend relied on the effects of biofuel cultivation on agriculture but surely another major, and possibly longer-term, anxiety is the destruction of forestry, particularly in South America, which is reducing a diminishing resource that is a means of absorbing excess carbon in the atmosphere.

My Lords, I am well aware of the concerns for both agriculture and forests. As I said earlier, the Ministry of Defence is such a small user of biofuels that I would rather not get into this debate.

My Lords, I understand that there is a second generation sort of biofuel that does not use food and food products but is generated from bacteria, using waste materials. How much of this biofuel is used in Ministry of Defence operations?

My Lords, I cannot answer that question but I refer to a Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, last year. When the noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked a supplementary question about this, my noble friend replied that these are termed “advanced biofuels”, which I think relates to the question of the noble Countess. They,

“do not have a land-take impact—certainly not in terms of taking land out of agricultural use or requiring a reduction in rainforest. Moreover, they do not have an impact on food production. Consideration is being given to greater incentives for the production of advanced biofuels”.—[Official Report, 27/3/13; col. 1077.]