Navy’s ‘Great Green Fleet’ Still Years Away, But Already Under Fire (UPDATED)
The initiative has been lauded as a needed catalyst to jumpstart the use of renewable energy by the U.S. military and the larger economy. Navy leaders also have held up the green fleet as a linchpin in efforts to reduce military dependence on fossil fuels.
“Alternative fuels for the Navy is not about being green, it’s about combat capability,” said Navy Cmdr. James Goudreau, director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office.
It takes 1.2 billion gallons of fuel a year to power the fleet, at a cost of $5 billion. “With the volatility of oil prices, our costs fluctuate by a billion dollars,” Goudreau said last month at a conference in Washington, D.C.
The Navy, along with the Air Force and the Army, is incurring considerable expense and effort to modify ship and aircraft engines so they can run on a blend of conventional and green fuel. They all have tested and certified a number of ships and warplanes as biofuel compatible.
[CORRECTION: The biofuel blends that are being tested are drop-in fuels and do not require engine modifications.]
The military has set a high bar, to be sure. Biofuels have to be chemically indistinguishable from conventional jet fuel, must be domestically produced, distributed regionally so the military is not consuming more energy transporting fuel, has to meet market price, can’t displace food stocks, can’t drive food prices, and have to meet a legislative requirement that their production can’t burn more carbon than petroleum.
But an even bigger obstacle that lies ahead for the Navy is whether allied nations will go down a similar energy path. The Navy is a globally deployed force that must have access to fuel anywhere it goes. So far, it is not clear whether other countries’ militaries plan to invest in renewables to the degree the Navy has.
“We don’t know if our allies are going to accept our fuel or they’ll have to do independent testing for their equipment,” said Goudreau.
The green fleet demonstration, he said, will serve as a “valuable tool to raise awareness with our allies. … They’ll have to start the testing.”
Navy leaders already have begun an international outreach campaign on this issue. Goudreau recently traveled to Australia and Singapore with Navy Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Tom Hicks. The goal was to “get a feel for where their industry is going,” Goudreau said. Discussions on the topic also are under way with NATO allies.
It is assumed, however, that if the Navy is able to deploy the green fleet by 2016, it will fill up with biofuel at home but there are no guarantees that renewable options will be available in overseas filling stations.
Goudreau said he expects European nations to surge production of biofuel as carbon taxes in that continent provide financial incentives to do so. The Asian market also might generate greater demand because its airplanes fly into Europe, he said. “We see those markets growing. … We hope to tap into local producers.”
These potential obstacles are not deterring the Navy’s enthusiasm for the green fleet, said Goudreau. “We said we are going to do it. We haven’t said how we’re going to do it.”
These issues are minor inconveniences that tend to be seized by naysayers, assert biofuel advocates. “Alternative fuels are used like any other fuel,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, a defense business consultant at Deloitte LLP. “You can go to any port and get diesel fuel from petroleum or biomass,” he said. “The whole fleet doesn’t leave the U.S. all the time,” Wald said. “None of these are absolutes.”
The Navy’s challenge is not unlike the problem that the entire renewable energy sector faces: The sources of fuel aren’t hard to find, but scaling up to mass production is far more difficult.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, a senior advisor at Deloitte, said energy programs should be viewed from a global perspective.
He said the Navy will have to “manage risk” as it transitions to biofuels. It may take time for the rest of the world to catch up, he said. “Whenever you have a breakthrough, you have to have the infrastructure that goes with it.”
But the green fleet’s biggest obstacle might not be overseas, but on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers have carped on the Navy’s request of $170 million for biofuel production at a time when the Navy’s budget for buying and maintaining ships is declining.
Defense Department energy officials were grilled March 29 during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee readiness subcommittee.
The panel’s chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., questioned the green fleet project as an unnecessary luxury that is also unrealistic because it assumes that foreign countries will be able to supply biofuels. Forbes cited statistics that 90 percent of all the fuel consumed by deployed Navy ships and planes is purchased overseas.
Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, said that number might be inflated, as approximately 50 percent of the fuel U.S. forces consume is acquired in foreign countries.
But Forbes insisted that, if that were the case, he would question whether the Navy would be compelled to make further investments in biofuels overseas.
Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, sought to reassure Forbes that the green fleet project is not subsidizing foreign interests. “Once the biofuels market has developed and has demonstrated itself through not just our purchases but through commercial purchases, there's no reason there would not be biofuels overseas,” she said.
Burke also defended the effort as one that should rise above partisan politics.
“I think there is very strong bipartisan consensus that we need alternatives to foreign oil,” she said. “And the [Defense] Department is certainly looking for our long-term interests here as a major user of liquid fuels. So we are looking to develop the alternatives and to have an insurance policy to be ready. Most of our investments have been in testing and certifying to be able to use alternative fuels. … There are plenty of studies in the commercial sector about biofuels, not specific to the Navy's goals but generally, that predict the possibility of competitiveness in eight to 10 years. It's very difficult to say how you're going to get there from here.”
Pfannenstiel called the great green fleet a “symbol” of the Defense Department’s larger goals. “It is the opportunity to demonstrate that in fact these fuels are operationally capable,” he said. “I think there's some misunderstanding about the great green fleet.” She described it as a take on the “great white fleet” that President Theodore Roosevelt sent around the world in the early part of the 20th century to demonstrate America's achievements and technological prowess.
The Navy’s embrace of biofuel, she added, also is an “opportunity to pursue a domestic industry with domestic American jobs and investment.”
The mixing of military projects with green-energy agendas inevitably stirs the ire of some GOP lawmakers. HASC member Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., blasted the Pentagon officials at the hearing for exemplifying the “anti-fossil fuel attitude with the Department of Defense.” Speaking for many oil and gas advocates, Scott said that if cost-savings and American job generation are the goals, the military could lower its energy costs if the United States produced more fossil fuels domestically.
“We have abundant supplies of natural gas and many other reserves that we could tap,” Scott said. “With all of the cuts that are coming to the military -- 132,000 uniformed personnel -- why is the DOD taking an anti-fossil fuel position when you could clearly, clearly save a tremendous amount of cost on the energy if you use things that were readily available, the technology was already there, like natural gas. Can you explain that to me?”
Burke begged to disagree. “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,” she told Scott. “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.”
Domestic oil drilling might be one of several ways to lower costs and secure energy supplies for the military, but any sound plan should include a diversity of sources, said Wald. Even if the United States boosted domestic drilling, it would still have to import a substantial amount of oil. That comes at a cost, he said. Since 1980, it is estimated that the U.S. military spends $65 billion to $85 billion a year guarding the Middle East. That cost does not include the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he said. If that cost were passed to consumers, the price of gas might be $9 per gallon, Wald said.
As is the case in any business, he said, it’s all about diversifying the risk.