Navy Takes Biofuels Campaign Into Uncharted Waters

By Eric Beidel
Energy is ammunition.

These three words are creeping back into the speech of commanders today. It is a concept that has guided the armed forces before.

Military leaders more than 60 years ago could see the potential operational capability dripping from a slice of bacon. Colorful ads during World War II urged homemakers to return grease to the local butcher so the government could use it to make bombs.

The Pentagon of today has launched another campaign to look for homegrown solutions to its energy crisis. This crusade could have lasting impacts as the military tries to jumpstart an alternative fuels industry that needs a poster child.

The Navy is at the forefront of the military’s efforts to “go green.” The service recently used biofuels to fly a fighter jet and began referring to one of its boats as a “lean, green, fighting machine” after it zipped across the waves on algae-based fuel during a showcase off the Virginia coast.

By trying to wean itself off oil, the Navy is looking to send signals into the alternative fuels market. It also is seeking to make a case that green energy saves lives. Even though the services account for just a tiny fraction of the country’s petroleum use, that little bit has deadly consequences.

One of the most quoted statistics in the military world today is that one soldier or marine is killed or wounded for every 25 fuel convoys undertaken by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“That is simply too high a human price to pay for imported energy,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. The reasons for investing in alternative fuels have become crystal clear, he said, “and the strategic and tactical implications of failing to do these things have become even more stark.”

Mabus signed memorandums of understanding last year with the Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration to encourage the development of biofuels. The Navy wants to demonstrate a “green” carrier strike group by 2012 and deploy it by 2016. By 2020, it wants half of its fuels to come from sources other than petroleum. These goals depend on the availability of biofuels.

Nobody has said it will be easy.

The country as a whole has similar ambitions that, too, will require an infant biofuels industry to grow up fast. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates that by 2020 the U.S. fuel supply include 36 billion gallons of biofuel. The country is quickly nearing 15 billion gallons, but it still lacks the infrastructure needed to produce enough of the environmentally friendly power to meet the government’s goal by decade’s end.

The USDA issued a report last summer that laid it bare: The United States needs 527 new biorefineries at a cost of $168 billion if it is to meet the 2020 mandate. More than 38 million acres of land will be needed to grow crops to produce the fuels.

“That’s on top of about 100 ethanol facilities that are out there right now,” said Jeffrey Steiner, program leader for biomass production systems at the department.

Corn ethanol is expected to account for 15 billion of the 36 billion gallons. Switchgrass, energy cane and biomass sorghum will produce another 13.4 billion gallons, said a USDA “roadmap” to meeting the 2020 standard.

“There is no unproductive land in America,” Steiner said. “No one feedstock or region can meet all of the nation’s needs.”

The Navy is focusing its attention on hydrotreated renewable oils. These fuels show the greatest ability to perform at sea and the most potential for near-term commercial scale production, said Rick Kamin, the Navy fuels lead.

In addition to numerous laboratory experiments, the service has completed four operational tests with biofuels. Last spring it flew an F/A-18 it called “the Green Hornet” on a 50-50 blend of traditional jet fuel and biofuel from the camelina plant. In October, a rigid-hull inflatable boat and a riverine command boat set sail powered by NATO F-76 petroleum and algae-based biofuel. And finally just before Thanksgiving, the Navy operated an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter again on a mixture made from camelina, which comes from the same family as the mustard seed.

“The Navy has learned that in the laboratory, on the test stand or in an aircraft or ship that the 50-50 biofuel blend tested has performed similarly to the petroleum-based fuels in current use,” Kamin said.

The Navy will conduct additional tests on ships and aircraft leading up to the carrier strike group demonstration slated for late 2012. The goal is to have a 50-50 blend containing biofuels approved in both ship and aviation specifications by that time, Kamin said.

Rear Adm. Philip Cullom brought a jar of biofuels to a recent energy forum in Washington, D.C. He held it up for industry executives to see. “It burns like any other fuel the United States Navy uses,” said the man heading the Navy’s Energy Task Force. A jet, ship or helicopter can’t tell the difference, he said, and neither can their operators.

And it’s the 400,000 men and women across the service who must buy into alternative fuels, said Cullom, who is the first to admit his not-so-green tendencies.

“I am a serial user of energy,” he said. “For 30 years I have burned more energy than probably most people do in 10 lifetimes because I like to go fast in ships. I like to go fast in an F/A-18. And all of those things are really fun and really good, but at the end of the day is that really where we need to go?”

The Navy needs to change its culture, Cullom said, and that means being able to translate a lot of flowery talk about alternative fuels for the people on board ships and flying in planes. But the Navy can’t do it alone and certainly not without the aid of a competitive marketplace and new policies in Washington.

Since 2006, the Defense Logistics Agency has procured more than 36 million gallons of ethanol-and-petroleum blends for the military. The Navy in September ordered an additional 150,000 gallons of algae-based fuel from San Francisco company Solazyme. The new agreement is seven times the size of the initial 20,000-gallon contract awarded last year. The Navy is paying big bucks for these fuels.

The service consumes an average of 1.2 billion gallons of petroleum each year at a cost of $3 billion — about $2.50 per gallon. The service paid Solazyme $8.5 million to provide just 20,000 gallons of algae-based fuel — $425 per gallon. At that rate, it would cost the Navy some $142.8 billion for the 8 million barrels of biofuel needed to meet its 2020 goal.

Camelina-based fuel is a bit cheaper but still more expensive than petroleum. In September 2009 the DLA’s defense energy support center paid Montana’s Sustainable Oils $2.7 million for 40,000 gallons of camelina-based fuel. That comes to about $67.50 per gallon.

“DoD and DLA are looking for a lower price than we’re paying today,” acknowledged Rear Adm. Kurt Kunkel, the DLA’s energy lead. “We’re in the research-and-development phase and not in the full-scale production phase … The price has certainly come down since we first started this several years ago, and I think there is continuous pressure for it to continue to come down.”

Cost aside, the agriculture community called upon to produce the feedstocks remains frustrated that DLA can only award contracts for up to five years to buy fuel.

“We have to figure out how we can get a bankable program for at least 20 years,” said Jackie Theriot, who sits on the board of the American Sugar Cane League and Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation. His state has some of the highest biomass production in the country, he said, but those efforts will go nowhere without long-term agreements with the government. Venture capitalists on Wall Street will not invest in short-term contracts, Theriot said.

“This is a hot-button issue for us,” Kunkel said, adding that his agency has given to federal lawmakers proposed legislation that would extend contracting authority to 15 or 20 years. The Pentagon wants to create a demand signal for alternative fuels, Kunkel said. To do that, DLA has to show industry a strong commitment through long-term agreements, he said.

The biofuels market will be driven, not by the Defense Department, but by the commercial industry, Kunkel said. Kamin added that the Navy’s fuel use is not significant enough to power an industry, but its role as an “early adopter” can help work out initial technical and production kinks.

“This is a great opportunity between the military and commercial industry,” said Timothy Vinopal, chief environmental engineer at Boeing. The defense contractor has worked with airlines in Japan to test jet fuels made from plants such as camelina and jatropha, which is common throughout Australia. The company also has worked with Honeywell to develop biofuels for China’s aviation industry.

“We’ve had a number of commercial flight tests with all of the engine companies with a variety of feedstocks,” Vinopal said, noting that the airline industry aims to receive 1 percent of its fuel from plants such as algae by 2015. That would represent about 600 million gallons a year.
Europe’s second-biggest airline, Lufthansa, plans to be the first to test biofuels on regular flights come April. The German company will use kerosene derived from plant oils in one engine on an Airbus SAS A321.

Still, Navy leaders have acknowledged a level of confusion and disconnect with industry partners when it comes to alternative energy. At a recent forum, company executives told Mabus that they have yet to see specific energy requirements in any requests for proposal (RFPs).

Mabus and his acquisition chief Sean Stackley assured business representatives that the Navy is aware of their concerns and used the opportunity to launch a new webpage for business opportunities related to alternative energy. The “Green Biz Opps” page can be accessed through the Navy’s acquisition website. The page will be the source for all clean-energy opportunities, Mabus said.

However, he cautioned that some energy requirements may never appear on an RFP.

“It’s like the F/A-18,” Mabus said. “It’s using the same engine no matter what fuel we burn. You’ll see an RFP for biofuels but you won’t see a change in the engine.”

Stackley created the “Green Biz Opps” page partly to ease the acquisition pain felt by small businesses trying to participate in the cumbersome military procurement process. The department has not yet included energy as part of performance specifications in the design of new weapon systems, but may in the future, he said.

“This is a change in the way we’ve done business,” Stackley said. “We’ve got a long way to go on this.” In the past, the Navy knew exactly what it wanted and asked industry to deliver it. Energy performance was never a consideration, he said. “Today it is.”     

Topics: Energy, Alternative Energy, Power Sources

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