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Navy’s Use of Biofuels Could Trigger Private-Sector Adoption

The Navy's use of advanced biofuels could help spur private-sector investment, said Dennis McGinn, President Obama's newly confirmed assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations, and environment.

"The private-sector benefits are the military's ability to do some pretty good analysis, to manage risk, and to introduce innovative materials and innovative processes," said McGinn, who was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month before the congressional recess. "It significantly lowers the barrier of entry to new industries and new technologies."

From medical devices to space technology, the Pentagon has often been an incubator for the private sector. McGinn said he's going to work to make sure it's the same in the renewable-energy sphere, and especially for biofuels.

"It can have a catalytic effect for large consumers of transportation," said McGinn, who stepped down recently from his post as president of the American Council on Renewable Energy when the Obama administration courted him for this position.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, the Pentagon's de facto advocate for the military's adoption of renewable energy over oil, has set a goal of getting half of the Navy's fuel from alternative sources by 2020 and sailing a "Green Fleet" that runs on nuclear power and biofuels.

McGinn, a retired vice admiral of 35 years, said he hopes to take the debate over this program, which Republicans have criticized for its cost as the Pentagon faces budget cuts, beyond sound bites.

"There have been a lot of sound bites attributed to various folks on both sides of the Defense Department's biofuels program," McGinn said. "I'm hoping to take it beyond that to really some objective cost-benefit risk analysis."

He said when doing that for the biofuels program, the cost will be competitive.

"The Navy is on record saying that there are contracts out there to produce biofuels that are cost-competitive with petroleum, and that is going to be the big task that I'll be working on with the team," McGinn said.

Although Obama has focused on his climate-change agenda lately—he's vowed to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions via executive action—McGinn said the driving force behind the Navy's greening effort is not climate change but military strategy.

"Ultimately, it's to increase military effectiveness, combat effectiveness, and operational efficiency of military forces," McGinn said. "It's all about the mission. The other benefits, whether it's related to climate or what have you, are added benefits."

After McGinn's departure from ACORE, the renewable-energy group named board member Michael Brower as acting CEO. "The only downside of this change is I have to leave ACORE," McGinn said with a laugh.

Brower said in an interview that he hopes the search committee for a new CEO, which he is leading, will find someone by year's end.

"I'd hope this would be a great Christmas present to ACORE," Brower said. "There are some really great people who are interested. We are very proud and honored that they have expressed an interest."

He declined to say who has surfaced as a candidate thus far.

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