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October 15, 2009
By Kate Wiltrout
© October 15, 2009
Teddy Roosevelt had the Great White Fleet.
Ray Mabus envisions a "Great Green Fleet."
The secretary of the Navy on Wednesday outlined five energy goals for the Navy and Marines in the next decade. Four involve reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, increasing use of alternative energies and factoring energy costs into the price tag of every new ship, engine or building.
The fifth might be the most radical: Mabus committed to fielding by 2012 a "green" strike group compo sed of aircraft powered by biofuels, surface ships that operate on hybrid power supplies, and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.
The "green" fleet won't just be for show, Mabus said. The strike group will deploy by 2016.
"Nobody has ever gotten anything big done by being timid," Mabus told more than 750 Navy personnel, industry representatives and academics at a two-day forum on energy priorities. "Bold steps are in our nature as Americans."
Roosevelt sent a coal-powered fleet of white ships around the globe in 1908 to demonstrate American naval might, Mabus noted. And President John F. Kennedy declared that Americans would walk on the moon in a matter of years - even though most of the technology required to do so hadn't yet been invented.
The Navy deserves credit for recent innovations such as the soon-to-be-commissioned Makin Island, Mabus said. The hybrid amphibious ship, powered by gas and electricity, saved $2 million in fuel costs on its initial voyage from Mississippi, where it was built, to San Diego.
But much more can be done.
"I'm here to encourage you and us to go further," Mabus said. "To dream what might be, instead of to simply accept what is."
Asked afterward for specifics on the cost of fielding the "green" strike group, Mabus declined to hazard even an estimate. But he emphasized that expensive innovations often get cheaper over time. By demanding a renewable source for at least half its jet fuel, for instance, the Navy would help create demand for large volumes, driving the price down.
That seems to be the case for the aviation fuel derived from the camelina plant, according to Rick Kamin, who leads the Navy fuels team.
Kamin said a gallon of camelina-based fuel is costlier, now, than a gallon of petroleum-based JP-5. But when the Navy begins buying large quantities of the newer fuel, it will probably be comparable in price - and much better environmentally than the old version.
Tuesday, at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the Navy tested an F/A-18 Hornet engine using camelina-based fuel. The engine ran for about an hour and maxed out at afterburner speed. Initial data showed the engine performing the same way it does with petroleum-based JP-5.
"It looks like the engine did not know the difference," Kamin said. "I think this is a tremendous leap for the fuels field."
The next big challenge comes in the spring, when the new fuel will be tested in an actual flight.
It might be a few years before Navy jets based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach run on renewable fuels. But Mabus - followed at the podium by Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations - made clear that day is coming.
Mabus said the Navy can't stop using fossil fuel overnight. But he said the service is too reliant on energy from finite and depleting sources, making the country dependent on supplies in unstable areas from governments that might not be allies.
"Energy reform is a strategic initiative," Mabus said.
Not all alternative energies are created equal, he noted. It takes much more energy to turn corn into ethanol than it does to create ethanol from cellulose products, such as wood, grasses or non-edible plants.
Mabus and Roughead did not rule out wider use of nuclear power to fuel ships.
Currently, only aircraft carriers and submarines use nuclear fusion for power. Nuclear power creates far less air pollution than burning fossil fuels. But reactors are expensive to build and maintain, Roughead said, and require a big investment in human capital to find and educate nuclear technicians.
Roughead, the Navy's top admiral, also encouraged smaller innovations that reduce consumption of fuel by 5 or 10 percent.
For example, coating ship hulls with a special paint that discourages barnacles and marine life reduces drag - which increases efficiency. Pilot programs show the innovation could save $180,000 in fuel costs annually per ship.
That might not seem like a lot - but multiply it by 285 vessels and it adds up.
Every bit counts when gas prices are high, as they were in mid-2008. Roughead said every time the price of a barrel of oil rose $10, it created a $300 million hole in the Navy budget.
Because ships have long lives, fuel efficiency is critical. The Navy shouldn't wait until a ship's midlife overhaul to make adjustments, Roughead said.
It's also time for the service to start pricing new programs, not just in terms of labor and materials. Mabus said Navy procurement practices will be changed, requiring bidders to include energy costs over a project's lifetime. Before a contract is awarded, he said, acquisition officials will compare the energy footprints of competitors' bids.
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, firstname.lastname@example.org