By Dan Parsons
Almost three years to the day after he laid out plans to achieve energy security for his service, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on Oct. 17 doubled down on that promise.
Mabus praised the progress the Navy has made and assured attendees at an industry conference that the goals he laid out in 2009 would be achieved within or ahead of the ambitious self-prescribed timeline.
“We have initiated, we have advanced and we have achieved many of the objectives we set,” Mabus said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Naval Energy Forum. “We are not there yet, but we are far further along. We’re doing what we’re doing and we’re leading at what we’re doing because it increases national security and, I would say, it increases international stability.”
Mabus said he was “absolutely confident” that the service will meet the prescribed goal that by 2020 half its energy will come from sources other than petroleum.
He has also called for half of all shore-based power to come from renewable sources by 2020 and for half of the Navy’s installations to be net-zero — meaning they create as much power as they consume — by the same year. Both are efforts to make the Navy’s infrastructure sustainable, “independent of what happens to the commercial electrical grid,” Mabus said. By 2015, all of the Navy’s ground vehicles will cut petroleum-based fuel consumption in half, he has vowed.
Meanwhile, each one-dollar increase in the price of a barrel of crude oil costs the Navy $30 million, Mabus said, echoing an oft-cited statistical grievance.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., member of both the Senate Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources committees, said that same dollar increase costs the Defense Department a total of $130 million.
For the U.S. economy as a whole, a volatile and fragile global oil market can have “significant and dangerous impacts,” Mabus added.
For the Navy, which consumes enormous amounts of fuel each day steaming around the globe, the constantly fluctuating price of oil can cause budgetary migraines. In fiscal year 2012, the service was forced to find an extra $500 million to cover unforeseen growth in fuel costs, Mabus said. Fuel use also has direct impacts on global operations for both the Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy spends $84 billion per year protecting maritime oil transit routes around the world, he said.
In an era marked by fiscal austerity and looming budget cuts, “there are only two places to get money like this,” he said. Without further funding, it must either come from operations or from the acquisition budget.
“I think those are simply choices we shouldn’t have to make,” he said. “I think there is another way to do this, but the only way is to think and act big.”
Shaheen said politics should not be allowed to get in the way of achieving energy security, regardless of controversial subjects like climate change. "As a policy, we need to make sure our military leaders can continue their historic tradition of identifying long-term challenges,” she said. “We cannot let energy security become a proxy debate for other issues surrounding renewable energy.”
The Navy is set to cut the ribbon Oct. 18 on a 1-kilowatt solar array at Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif. The following day, a similar photovoltaic array will be unveiled at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. Each will save the Navy $13 million to $20 million over their 20-year lifespans, Mabus said.
These kinds of projects have practical impacts on the economic health of the nation and its security, Shaheen said.
“Energy has always been directly related to our economy, our national security and our combat effectiveness,” she said. “It is imperative to the success of today’s military. Energy security is national security.”
In Hawaii, where fuel prices are the highest in the nation, plans are under way to generate 56 megawatts annually at various Navy installations by relying on “the strength of the Hawaiian sun,” Mabus said. At Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, a power-generating wave is already pumping electricity into the local electrical grid.
Perhaps the most ambitious effort Mabus has undertaken to achieve energy security is the search for a drop-in bio-fuel that burns cleaner and more efficiently than traditional petroleum based jet fuel. During the recent Rim of the Pacific international military exercises in Hawaii, Mabus’ Great Green Fleet demonstrated that it could be done.
With the exception of the USS Nimitz, which is nuclear powered, every aircraft and ship in that carrier’s strike group burned only a 50/50 mix of bio-diesel and traditional fuel. When he visited the exercises, Mabus’ own helicopter ran on the same mixture.
The only difference seems to be that bio-fuels seem to burn a little bit cleaner, he said. “Engines may last longer when you’re burning these because you don’t gunk them up.”
A major obstacle — politically and fiscally — is the price of bio-fuels relative to petroleum-based fuels. Though the cost of bio-fuels has dropped by half since the initiative was first announced, they remain magnitudes of order more expensive than fossil fuels. But Mabus and Shaheen agreed the Navy could help build a mass market.
“If there is an industry that the military needs that isn’t available … we can help spur it along,” Mabus said. He cited the steel and nuclear industries as success stories.
“Bio-fuels do still cost more, for now, but that cost is dropping dramatically,” Shaheen said. “The government is the biggest user of energy in the country and the military uses 95 percent of that.”
Mabus’ plans have taken hard knocks from budget hawks and skeptics of renewable energy. But he was careful to couch his quest for energy security as a practical necessity for future national security.
“Every change we’ve made has made the Navy and the Marine Corps stronger and better able to keep sea lanes open and the global commons safe,” he said. “We not only have the opportunity, we have an obligation to create a new energy future. There is absolutely clear and overwhelmingly compelling evidence that these efforts are vital to our national security.”
Correction: The original post misspelled Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's last name.
Photo Credit: Navy