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Mike Hower headshot

Can the US Navy Turn the Tide with Biofuels?


At the beginning of the 20th century, 16 U.S. battleships -- all painted white with gilded bows -- set off on an unprecedented two-year voyage around the world. Dispatched by President Theodore Roosevelt as a show of America’s newfound naval might, the “Great White Fleet” ushered in a new era of U.S. involvement in global affairs.

More than a century later in 2009, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the Navy would demonstrate and then deploy a “Great Green Fleet,” a carrier strike group fueled by alternative energy sources. Developing the Great Green Fleet was one of five energy goals set by Mabus to reduce the Department of the Navy’s consumption of energy, decrease its reliance on foreign sources of oil and significantly increase its use of alternative energy. Mabus has also committed to obtaining at least 50 percent of the energy used by the Navy and Marine Corps from alternative sources by 2020.

Ambitious? Yes. Feasible? Definitely.

In 2012, the Navy demonstrated the Great Green Fleet’s potential in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international maritime exercise. During these maneuvers, the Navy powered its ships, fighter jets and helicopters with biofuels.

What was the performance cost of running off renewables? Zero. Less than zero, actually, as engines saw a slight performance boost from the cleaner-burning biofuel.

Though the Great Green Fleet’s critics argued the biofuels used during the 2012 RIMPAC were significantly more expensive than petroleum-based fuels, this was only because the Navy ordered a small batch of the specialized fuel. As the Navy has scaled up production of biofuels by investing in specialized refineries, costs have plummeted.

A cornerstone of this effort is the “Farm-to-Fleet” program, part of the USDA-Navy partnership started in 2010, when President Barack Obama challenged his secretaries of Agriculture, Energy and Navy to investigate how they could work together to speed the development of domestic "drop-in" diesel and jet fuel substitutes.

“It's going to be very competitive with fossil fuels,” Mabus said last week during a discussion at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. “In fact, we're not going to do it unless it is competitive with fossil fuels.”

Mabus explained that going green was not only an environmental sustainability move, but also an economic and military imperative.

As anyone who has ever owned a car knows, the cost of fuel fluctuates every time there is so much as a hint of unrest in the oil-producing regions, such as the Middle East. With a petroleum-dependent fleet, the Navy is often forced to pay millions more than it budgeted when the cost of fuel shoot ups. This means it has less money to spend on operations, training troops and building new ships.

With the federal sequester and other austerity measures strangling military budgets, finding cheaper, more efficient energy sources is more important than ever.

“Now is exactly the time that we have to do this,” Mabus said. “A tightening budget situation makes it even more urgent, even more critical that we do this.

According to Mabus, the Navy has always been on the forefront of new energy technologies, switching from sail to coal, coal to oil, and pioneering nuclear. “Every single time, there were naysayers,” he said. “It’s one of our core competencies: changing energy.”

Investing in green technologies has also helped to save American lives, Mabus said. In Afghanistan, for example, for every 50 convoys sent to the front lines, one marine dies. Since oil is one of the main things these convoys haul, reducing the need for it will decrease the number of convoys needed, which will save lives.

Mabus said climate change and rising sea levels will make it increasingly difficult for the Navy to do its job. With a significant percentage of the world’s population living near oceans, sea level rise can trigger instability.

“Our responsibilities, our jobs, become bigger because of sea level rise,” Mabus said. There is serious concern for island-nations like the Maldives, which could disappear from the face of the Earth if sea levels rise much further.

The Navy often looks to its enlisted men for sustainability ideas, such as how to increase energy efficiency on its ships and land-based facilities. “People who join the Navy or Marine Corps have this willingness to change, and it’s part of the spirit of innovation,” Mabus said.

The Department of Defense is the biggest user of fossil fuels in the world, and the Navy uses about a third of it. With the U.S. having spent around $716 billion on defense in 2013, this isn’t chump change.

“What we do is we bring a market,” Mabus said.

Image credit: Commonwealth Club of California

Mike Hower headshotMike Hower

Currently based in Washington, D.C, <strong>Mike Hower</strong> is a new media journalist and strategic communication professional focused on helping to drive the conversation at the intersection of sustainable business and public policy. To learn more about Mike, visit his blog,<a href="http://climatalk.com/&quot; > ClimaTalk</a>.

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