Bio Fleet: The Navy's pursuit of an ambitious alternative energy program

Editor's note: This article was published in the January issue of Government Executive magazine.

A decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq has taught the U.S. military a key lesson: It can't keep fighting like it is. It takes too much energy -- literally.

Pentagon officials estimate that U.S. forces burn more than 5 billion gallons of fuel annually in military operations. That's more than 570,000 gallons an hour. The war in Afghanistan alone consumes about 1.3 million gallons of fuel a day. Helicopters gulp hundreds of gallons of fuel per hour and Humvees get less than 10 miles per gallon. On average, ground troops require 22 gallons of fuel per warfighter per day, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That's nearly twice the fuel consumption rate during the Vietnam War, and 22 times the rate during World War II.

To keep fuel flowing to the troops, nearly 80 percent of the military's supply convoys in Afghanistan are devoted to delivering fuel. Not surprisingly, the convoys make an attractive target for insurgents -- one in 50 experiences a fatality or serious injury.

"That's too high a price to pay," says Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, whose Marines are among the casualties.

There are other costs. For every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the Navy's annual fuel bill goes up $31 million, Mabus told an energy forum in Washington in October 2011. When the revolution in Libya pushed the barrel price of oil up $30, to $112 in February 2011, the Navy's fuel bill ticked up an extra $1 billion, he said.

Faced with rising costs and instability in oil-producing countries, top military leaders acknowledge that it's time for an attitude change about energy. But none pushes harder for change than Mabus.

From a biofuel conference in his hometown of Starkville, Miss., to the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., Mabus preaches the gospel of energy independence. "We buy too much fuel from potentially or actually volatile places on Earth," he told the energy forum. That dependence creates an untenable vulnerability. "We have to change the way we use, produce and get energy," he says. Mabus champions conservation measures, ranging from more fuel-efficient ships to smart meters for controlling electricity use on bases. But in the long run, he says the Navy must find an alternative source for fuel.

To push the Navy -- and he hopes the nation -- in that direction, Mabus has set some of the most ambitious alternative energy goals: by 2020, at least half of the energy the Navy consumes must come from nonfossil-fuel sources. Ships, aircraft and ground vehicles will continue to run on liquid fuel, but Navy officials expect half of that will be derived from biomass that has been converted to fuel.

Building a Biofuels Market

If the Navy meets its goals, in 2016 it will deploy an aircraft carrier strike group dubbed the Great Green Fleet powered by nuclear energy and biofuel. In the meantime, a smaller nuclear and biofuel-powered Green Strike Group is to conduct operations off Hawaii during this summer's Rim of the Pacific exercise.

To power the strike group, Mabus and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Dec. 5 that the Defense Logistics Agency is buying 450,000 gallons of biofuel, half made from used cooking oil and half from algae. The $12 million purchase is the largest single biofuel purchase by the U.S. government, and possibly the largest such purchase ever, Mabus said. And, at $26 a gallon, "it is half what we were paying for it this time last year," he said.

When the much larger Great Green Fleet deploys in 2016, it will need 10 times that much -- 4 million to 5 million gallons, says Thomas Hicks, deputy assistant Navy secretary for energy.

To achieve that, the service first will have to create a biofuels market place.

In August, the Navy joined the Agriculture and Energy departments in a three-year, $510 million effort to build a viable biofuels industry. Using the 1950 Defense Production Act -- Cold War legislation designed to bolster industries essential to the military, such as aluminum and titanium production -- the three agencies are preparing to fund biofuel production operations. Private investors will have to put up at least half the money, Navy officials say.

Since August, the Navy has received more than 100 responses to a request for information from farmers, refiners, processors and others interested in developing the biofuels industry and obtaining government funding, Hicks says.

To Mabus, the benefits of jump-starting the biofuels industry go beyond the Navy. The goal, he says, is to "improve our energy security, increase our energy independence and help lead the nation toward a clean energy economy."

Biofuel Takes Flight

On a humid April day in 2010, an F/A-18 Hornet roared down the runway at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. White strands of condensation curled back from its wingtips as the Green Hornet lifted off. It was Earth Day and the Hornet was powered by a 50-50 mixture of conventional jet fuel and biofuel squeezed from seeds of camelina plants. Soon the plane was racing at 1.7 times the speed of sound.

Afterward, Lt. Cmdr. Tom Weaver, the pilot, declared the flight flawless. "There is no difference between JP5 [conventional jet fuel] and biofuel," he said.

Mabus was ebullient: "We stretched our imagination a little bit further today. In fact, our imagination flew today, flew because of biofuels developed through American innovation and American science," he said at the time.

The flights have continued. On Labor Day weekend in 2011, the Navy's Blue Angels precision flying team performed using the same 50-50 blend of jet fuel and biofuel. The previous month, a T-45 trainer and an MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft flew on the same fuel blend.

By late 2011, all manned and unmanned Navy aircraft had flown on biofuel, and testing of surface vessels was under way, according to Hicks. Navy helicopters, riverine command boats and landing craft had been powered by biofuel blends wrung from algae.

"Everything we see in biofuels indicates that the technology's there," Mabus says.

The Navy isn't venturing into alternative fuels alone. The Air Force has test-flown aircraft ranging from big B-52 bombers to unmanned aerial vehicles on blends that include liquid fuels made from camelina, coal and natural gas. Meanwhile, the Army has demonstrated that Blackhawk helicopters can fly on fuel extracted from coal, and is designing hybrid combat vehicles.

Still, the Navy remains the military's most enthusiastic alternative fuels promoter.

"Culturally, the Navy has embraced" the need to begin switching to nonpetroleum sources of energy, says Scott Truver, director of national security programs at Gryphon Technologies, an engineering and technical services firm that holds Navy contracts.

Energy has become "a no-kidding issue that's got to be addressed," Truver says. "It's so the fleet can operate within the constraints that are going to be coming." Those include tighter budgets, continued risk in petroleum-producing regions and almost certainly rising petroleum prices.

The nation has reached similar energy tipping points in the past, and always, Mabus says, with the Navy leading the way. In the 1850s, the Navy shifted from sail to coal; in the early 20th century from coal to oil; and in the 1950s, the service introduced nuclear power for propulsion.

"And every single time we did, without exception, there were these naysayers" arguing that energy innovations were too uncertain and too dangerous. Often, "they were inside the Navy saying this. And every time, without exception, they've been wrong. And I have absolutely no doubt they're going to be wrong this time, too," he told attendees at the Washington energy forum.

Coming Sea Change

The shift from petroleum to biofuel could be as significant to the Navy in coming years as the decision in 1904 to move the fleet from coal to oil, Truver says. It could mean that 80 percent of the Navy's energy comes from domestic sources, breaking the service's dependence on foreign oil.

And the Great Green Fleet could rival the Great White Fleet of 1907 -- the 14-month global cruise of 16 white ships that marked the United States' emergence as a world military power.

As the Navy prepares for the 2016 deployment, the focus isn't just on biofuels. Ships are being fitted with a range of energy-efficient technologies: Solid-state light-emitting diodes will replace incandescent light bulbs to cut fuel consumption on destroyers by as much as 500 barrels of oil per year. New coatings will keep hulls clean, and thus reduce drag, which could slash fuel consumption by 10 percent. Stern flaps that help ships slide more easily through the water have the potential to increase efficiency by another 7.5 percent. And Smart Voyage Planning software that considers hull-form data, weather and ocean current information could optimize ship routing for further savings, the Navy says.

Hybrid-electric drive propulsion offers additional savings.

At 847 feet long and weighing 41,600 tons, the USS Makin Island, with its 1,200 sailors and 1,700 Marines and Harrier jets, helicopters and landing craft, looks more like a floating fortress than an energy efficiency experiment. But the ship's hybrid electric drive and gas turbine propulsion system saved 900,000 gallons of fuel worth $2.2 million during its 12,000-mile maiden voyage in 2009.

Makin Island's main propulsion system includes two 35,000-horsepower gas turbine engines that can push the ship through the water at up to 23 knots. Because gas turbines are efficient only when operating at high speeds, the ship runs on electricity when sailing at 12 knots or less to avoid wasting fuel. Six 4,000-kilowatt diesel generators power two 5,000-horsepower auxiliary electric motors to drive the ship.

The Navy estimates the Makin Island will save $250 million in fuel costs over its 40-year life span. That's at today's oil prices. Savings will increase as the price of oil goes up.

Buoyed by the Makin Island's performance, the Navy plans this year to see how hybrid drive systems perform in smaller ships. The guided missile destroyer USS Truxtun will be fitted with a hybrid electric drive system, a stern flap and other energy-saving technology. The hybrid drive system alone is expected to cut Truxtun's fuel consumption by 8,500 barrels a year -- for a savings of about $850,000 at current oil prices. If the electric propulsion system is deemed suitable for Truxtun, then other destroyers might be retrofitted with hybrid drive systems after 2014, Hicks says.

DDG-51-class ships like Truxtun make attractive candidates for hybrid drive systems because "we've got a lot in the fleet and we're proposing to build a lot more," Mabus says.

Looking for 'Mr. Right'

The fuel for these future ships is being developed today on 60,000 acres of Montana farmland, on 11,000 acres in arid Eastern Washington, in a breeding nursery in Yuma, Ariz., on five-acre demonstration plots in North Carolina. It's also percolating in giant stainless-steel tanks, in clear plastic tubes and in sprawling ponds stained deep green by algae.

Recognizing the oil potential in camelina, algae and other crops "is like discovering oil in all 50 states," says John Williams, a spokesman for Seattle-based AltAir Fuels LLC.

Camelina, a relative of mustard, provides most of the biofuel that has powered military aircraft so far. "The attraction of camelina for biofuel is that you can grow it today-it's out of the research and development phase," Williams says.

Ultimately, though, algae may prove a more promising source of biofuel. "Algae are the most prolific organisms known -- they grow fast, they have a high oil content, they're an ideal source for biofuel," Williams says.

"You can get about 75 gallons of biofuel from an acre of camelina, but you can get 2,000 to 5,000 gallons per acre" from algae, he says.

The Air Transport Action Group trade association calls algae "potentially the most promising feedstock for producing large quantities of sustainable aviation biofuel." Among its attributes: It can grow in polluted and brackish water, it can be grown on otherwise unproductive land, and it thrives on carbon dioxide, potentially reducing emissions from sources such as power plants.

But "if algae is Mr. Right, camelina is Mr. Right Now," Williams says. Like algae, camelina does not require prime crop land. It will grow on marginal land, requires little water or fertilizer, and it can be planted and harvested with existing farm equipment.

The Navy has set some strict rules for biofuels. They cannot come from food crops, a requirement that rules out corn, soybeans and other edible plants. They must be "drop-in replacements" for petroleum-based fuel, meaning they must perform well without requiring any changes to engines or fuel storage and handling equipment.

And over their life cycle, biofuels cannot produce more greenhouse gas than the petroleum fuel they replace. For now, that rules out coal-to-liquid fuel. The process of turning coal into liquid fuel releases substantial carbon dioxide, and then burning the liquid fuel releases even more. The result is a life cycle that produces nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as that associated with burning petroleum.

A 'Strategic Imperative'

After the pale yellow flowers are gone and green camelina dries to golden brown, giant combines cut the plants and extract their seeds. The seeds are then pressed to squeeze out their oil. Algae, too, is pressed, and additional oil can be extracted through a chemical process.

In both cases, the oil is cleaned and then refined into jet fuel with essentially the same technology used to produce jet fuel from petroleum, says Susan Gross, spokeswoman for green jet fuel maker Honeywell UOP.

The resulting fuel is slightly higher in energy density than petroleum-based fuel, which means an aircraft can fly farther on less fuel, Gross says. Compared with petroleum, biofuels produce 65 percent to 80 percent fewer greenhouse gases.

Mabus shrugs off the environmental virtues.

"There are lots of ancillary things that flow from [biofuels] -- more jobs, cleaner environment, better stewards of the Earth. But those are all side effects," he told the energy forum. "We are a military organization, and we're doing this so that we can be a better military organization. So that we can fight better, so that we can perform the duties and missions given to us by this country.

"This isn't trendy; this isn't flavor of the day. We're doing it for the Navy, we're doing it for the Marine Corps, we're doing it for the United States of America to become energy independent," he said. "Energy reform is a strategic imperative."

In the long run, petroleum statistics don't favor the United States. The nation consumes 25 percent of the world's oil supply, but produces only 3 percent. Foreign governments, some of which are hostile to U.S. interests, control 77 percent of the world's oil production. What's more, 30 percent of the oil that the United States depends on passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway linking the oil-rich Persian Gulf with the rest of the world.

For years military planners have worried that Iran, which borders the strait on the north, or some other anti-Western actor might block the strategic choke point. At its narrowest, the strait separates Oman from Iran by 34 miles. On an average day, 13 tankers carry 15.5 million barrels of crude oil through the passage. And there are other similar choke points elsewhere, says Navy's Hicks -- the Strait of Malacca, the Panama Canal, Gibraltar.

It doesn't take an actual oil shortage, just the threat of one, to roil financial markets and send the price of oil skyward, he says.

For the U.S. economy, expensive oil threatens industrial production, employment and growth. For the Navy, that threatens steaming time, flying time and readiness.

But for all the promise of biofuels, there remains a major hurdle -- cost.

In 2010, the Navy reportedly paid $67.50 a gallon for camelina-based fuel and $425 a gallon for fuel from algae. That compares to about $4 a gallon for conventional jet fuel.

But the price is rapidly coming down, according to Hicks. Today the Navy is buying small batches of specially produced fuel. "We haven't yet got the economy of scale," he says. That's coming.

Even with the "very small amounts we've been buying for testing, we saw a price come down by half last year and it's on track to come down by half again is year," Mabus says. "As the market ramps up, the price is coming down."

That's starting to happen commercially, too. Alaska Airlines reports paying $17 a gallon this fall for 28,500 gallons of biofuel made from used cooking oil. Although that's about five times more than it pays for commercial jet fuel, the airline says in November it flew 75 flights using a biofuel mixture to call attention to the commercial industry need for competitively priced biofuels.

Another energy tipping point is at hand, Mabus says. "I think the U.S. military, particularly the Navy and the Marine Corps, are going to be on the edge causing that tip."

William Matthews is a freelance journalist who has covered government and technology in Washington for two decades.

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