Next month, in naval exercises off the coast of Hawaii, five U.S. warships will make history: They will be the first to use biofuels to power their huge turbines, as well as the jet planes screaming off a carrier’s deck and helicopters hovering overhead.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment, what could go wrong with biofuels?
- A few well-timed missiles dispersing incendiaries could wipe out fuel crops
- Particulate injection into the stratosphere could reduce available solar power for your crops
- Disease could be introduced to your algal ponds to disrupt/eliminate fuel production
Of course you could simply suffer a series of harsh winters that would cripple your military capability by starving fuel supplies…
Or, you could do something sensible like increasing domestically-sourced energy supplies by, oh, I dunno, allowing development of continental shelf and onshore public lands resources?
Hey, a place with America’s coal reserves might even try [gasp!] coal-to-liquids for something that actually works and provides work for um, Americans.
Just a couple of thoughts… anyway, in its wisdom the Navy is going big on cooking grease and slime:
The flotilla—powered by a mixture of cooking grease and algae oil—is the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy’s efforts to shake off its centurylong dependence on petroleum.
But now it has become the center of a political storm. Lawmakers in both houses of Congress last month voted to stop the Navy from buying any more of the still-pricey alternative fuel and to keep the Pentagon from investing $170 million in new biofuel refineries.
“Using defense dollars to subsidize new-energy technologies is not the Navy’s responsibility,” Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and a third-generation naval officer, told Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus at a hearing earlier this year.
Sen. McCain and other critics were most upset by the cost of the alternative fuel needed for this summer’s green-fleet exercise: $12 million for 450,000 gallons, or $26 a gallon—about five times the price for regular fuel.
“I think we cannot afford not to do this,” replied Mr. Mabus. Each $1 increase in the price of a barrel of crude costs the Navy $31 million a year, and in the current fiscal year that created a $1 billion rise in the Navy’s fuel bill, which “means that our sailors and Marines are forced to steam less, fly less, and train less,” he said.
Altogether, the Pentagon spent about $18 billion on fuel in fiscal year 2011, substantially more than a decade ago.
The Navy hopes that after this summer’s trials, a full green carrier strike group will be operational by 2016. By 2020, the Navy plans to use alternative fuel for half of all consumption afloat. While other branches of the military are looking at biofuels the Navy is taking the lead.
The Pentagon wants to boost the U.S. biofuels industry so it can build larger refineries and bring down costs, much the way the military’s need for titanium, advanced turbines and digital communications spurred those industries.
“I would argue that out of any government entity in the entire world, the U.S. Department of Defense is by far the most effective catalyst for innovation,” said Jonathan Wolfson, chief executive of Solazyme Inc., which is supplying oil extracted from algae for this summer’s exercise. Other fuel to be used comes from used cooking oil.
The planned refinery investments, at a time when the Navy and Marines are cutting personnel and struggling to maintain fleet size, worry some lawmakers of both parties. Democrats who joined Republicans to block buying pricey biofuels include Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jim Webb of Virginia. Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) called the energy push part of “a far-left environmental agenda that is being imposed on the Department of Defense.”