Armed with Algae
The US Navy has embarked on an ambitious plan to deploy a fleet of warships powered by alternative fuels by 2016, deemed the 'Great Green Fleet.' The initiative has been touted as one of the most effective moves to jumpstart the use of renewable energy in the US military and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, which would, in turn, have similar effects on the larger economy.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) is the largest oil consuming government body in the world, with the Navy accounting for roughly 1.2 billion gallons of fuel consumption annually at a cost of about $5 billion. With the extreme volatility of oil, costs could easily fluctuate by a billion dollars.
“We are too dependent on either potentially or actually volatile places on earth to get our energy,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in an interview with Renewable Energy World. “Now we’re susceptible to supply shocks and even if we’ve got enough, we’re susceptible to price shocks... when the Libya situation started and the price of oil went up $40 a barrel, that was almost a billion dollars additional fuel bill for the U.S. Navy.”
Newt Gingrich may poke fun at algae-based biofuels, but it's something the US military takes very seriously. Along with the Air Force and Army, the Navy has tested and certified a number of ships and warplanes as biofuel compatible to run on a drop-in blend of conventional oil and green fuel that does not require engine modifications. With over $500 million invested in the biofuels industry, the Navy hopes to cut its use of fossil fuels in half over the next decade.
Although it would serve as a huge win for the companies involved, meeting the military's requirements is not easy. The fuel has to be chemically indistinguishable from conventional jet fuel, must be produced domestically and distributed regionally (to avoid consuming more energy transporting the fuel), must meet market price, can't displace food stocks or drive food prices and can't burn more carbon than petroleum. If scientists can develop fuels in mass quantities for the military, however, the possibility of employing those technologies in the civilian world could act as the catalyst the industry needed in order to finally become a commercial reality.
Signs of success are already surfacing. In November, in the largest alternative fuel test in history, the Navy's first biofuel-powered ship completed a trip along California's coast, running on a 50-50 mix of petroleum and algae-based fuel produced from Solazyme. The fuel burned just like traditional fuel, using the same engines. Later, in March, the Navy's USS Ford sailed over 12,000 miles on the fuel from Washington to San Diego, portraying similar results.
Other companies are working on a wide range of alternative fuel options in the competition to win supplier bids with the DoD's largest oil consumer. Besides San Francisco-based Solazyme, Dynamic Fuels is also one of the biggest players in the program. The Louisiana-based company sources its fuel from used cooking oil and non-food grade animal fats.
If the Navy is able to deploy the fleet by 2016, it will be able to fill up on biofuels at home, but with a globally deployed force, access to the fuel overseas is a whole other issue. The Great Green Fleet will serve as a valuable tool for raising awareness with US allies, but leaders in the Navy, including Navy Cmdr. James Goudreau and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Tom Hicks, have also begun an international outreach campaign to encourage other nations to go down a similar energy path.
In the big picture, these challenges are minor inconveniences. “Alternative fuels are used like any other fuel,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, a defense business consultant at Deloitte LLP, to National Defense Magazine. “You can go to any port and get diesel fuel from petroleum or biomass... The whole fleet doesn’t leave the U.S. all the time. None of these are absolutes.”
As for the biofuel producers themselves, the greatest challenge is the same as it always has been across the industry—scaling up to mass production. The program is being viewed from a global perspective, meaning it will involve managing risk during the transition as the rest of the world catches up.
Despite some backlash from Washington, the Navy continues to steadfastly pursue the initiative, insisting that the nation rises above partisan politics in an effort to strengthen the operations of its armed forces. It's not about right vs left, the environment vs big oil; it's about giving our armed forces the tools they need to protect America.
“Alternative fuels for the Navy is not about being green, it’s about combat capability,” said Goudreau at a recent conference in D.C.
“The department over the six-year defense program will be purchasing $52 billion worth of petroleum and it's absolutely essential to our military operations” Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, told National Defense Magazine. “We are not anti-fossil fuel. We can't operate without it. Ninety percent of our investment over that time in energy initiatives in the operational space is to reduce our consumption of fuel so that we have tactical benefits for it.”
All politics aside, Mabus has stressed that the adoption of renewable energy and alternative fuels is not about reducing carbon emissions, but about improving naval preparedness.
“We’re moving away from it for one reason, that is it makes us better war fighters,” Mabus said in an interview, adding how the US Navy has always played a critical role in the course of energy throughout history:
“In the 1850s, we went from sail to coal. In the early part of the 20th century, we went from coal to oil. In the 50s, we pioneered nuclear. We were the first service, first people to ever use nuclear power for transportation. And now, we’re changing it again. And every single time, from the 1850s to today, you’ve got nay sayers, they say you’re trading one form of energy that you know about, that’s predictable, that’s affordable for another that’s not and you just shouldn’t do it. And every single time, they’ve been wrong and I’m absolutely confident they’re going to be wrong again."
U.S. Navy is applauded for leading the way in biofuels and clean energy:
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