Biofuels will power Navy’s next deployment

Source: By Joshua Stewart, San Diego Union Tribune • Posted: Friday, January 22, 2016

Ships from the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group are underway in the western Pacific Ocean.

Ships from the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group are underway in the western Pacific Ocean.

This Wednesday, there surely will be tears, hugs and excitement as sailors begin another deployment to the world’s hotspots. On the surface, it will be a replay of a common occurrence in any Navy town when sailors go to sea, but in the ships’ gas tanks will be fuel made from renewable resources that has officials back at the Pentagon exuberant.

“Underway on beef-fat power” might not have the same ring as “Underway on nuclear power,” the historic message the Nautilus submarine beamed when it left the pier 61 years ago today. Nonetheless, the Navy is trumpeting the use of renewable biofuels as a game-changer.

In 2009, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that the Navy and Marine Corps would get half of their power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020, and that the Navy would deploy an entire carrier strike group using biofuels by 2016.

Since then, every type of aircraft in the service’s hangars and every class of ship in the Naval Vessel Register has flown or gone to sea with biofuels made out of beef fat, municipal waste, palm oil, algae or camelina, a plant in the mustard family.

Wednesday’s expected deployment of the Great Green Fleet is the culmination of these past efforts.

The San Diego-based cruiser Mobile Bay and destroyers Stockdale and William P. Lawrence will use a blend of traditional fuel and biodiesel generated from Midwestern cattle’s fat. The beef fat was turned into fuel by a AltAir Fuels, a Paramount-based energy company.

Those ships will deploy with the Bremerton, Wash.-based aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and its nine-squadron air wing, as well as the destroyer Chung-Hoon from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The trip comes after more than $200 million in Navy spending that has helped shape the biofuels sector.

“It was an enormous boost on the industry,” said Stephen Mayfield, director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology at UC San Diego and a co-founder of the company Sapphire Energy. “All the venture (capital) guys saw that the U.S. military is an enormous customer and may even pay a premium.”

The cost of alternative fuels is still not entirely equal to the cost of petroleum-based fuels. With oil trading at the lowest level in more than a decade, energy companies are reluctant to invest in a field that will yield similar products but at higher prices.

“At $30 per barrel, the biggest problem is no more investment from the business community. If I am Exxon or I’m BP, we’re getting crushed. These guys are not going to put another penny into it, but if you talk to them, they are closely watching all the advances that are being made,” Mayfield said.

The Navy began purchasing biofuels in bulk for ships and jets in 2014, and it expects to get 170 million gallons this year through a partnership with several companies.

Navy officials are confident that deployments using biofuels will be the new status quo, based on past testing and their belief that prices will drop.

“Our ships and our aircraft could sail, could steam, could fly on blends of normal aviation fuel or marine diesel and biofuels. What we’re doing now is making that part of the new normal,” Mabus said in a video posted on Navy social media accounts.

The Great Green Fleet is a reference to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, a flotilla of battleships that toured the world between 1907 and 1909 to show off the country’s naval prowess.

Operationally, however, the Great Green Fleet might have a closer resemblance to 1964’s Operation Sea Orbit, a 65-day circumnavigation of the globe with the Navy’s first nuclear-powered warships — the carrier Enterprise, cruiser Long Beach and then-destroyer Bainbridge (the Bainbridge was later reclassified as a cruiser). That cruise was designed to show off nuclear propulsion’s potential.

Like both historic deployments, the Great Green Fleet is a demonstration of naval capabilities. In this case, it’s showing off the utility of alternative fuels.

When he announced in 2009 that the entire Navy would get half of its energy from non-petroleum sources, Mabus said it made sense to give combatant commanders an alternative to fuels with capricious prices and origins in countries that aren’t completely friendly to U.S. interests. It would also provide another source of energy if there were disruptions in the fossil-fuel supply chain.

But Mabus’ plan pushed the military into the biofuels industry at a time when a gallon of algae- or camelina-based fuel cost more than $25. In comparison, traditional fuels were about 80 percent cheaper.

Critics said with such financial dynamics, it made no sense for the Navy to try to transform the energy industry.

“You’re not the secretary of energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy,” Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, said in a 2012 hearing. He has been one of the most consistent critics of the Navy’s green-energy efforts and has said the money spent on biofuels could be better spent on shipbuilding, particularly when the Navy’s budget was getting squeezed.

A Congressional Research Service report noted that since 90 percent of the fuel a carrier strike group uses during a deployment comes from overseas sources close to where the ships are operating, it was “not clear whether developing a domestic advanced biofuels industry would do much in practical terms to diversify the Navy’s fuel sources.”

Mabus has said the biofuels initiative makes good fiscal sense; for every dollar increase in the cost of a barrel of oil, the Navy’s fuel bill goes up by $30 million, so alternative fuels can protect the Navy from price shocks. Furthermore, Mabus said while the cost of a gallon of biofuel is high compared to fossil fuels, the military’s investment in biofuels will encourage new innovations, increase production and eventually lower the expense of tanking-up a destroyer or topping-off an F/A-18 Hornet with green fuel.

The Navy’s spending has made an impact on the industry because the service is the biggest customer in the market, said Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, a trade group. Biofuels generally cost less than $10 per gallon, while some sellers price it between $5 and $8, he said.

“What the Navy is doing here is catalyzing and driving an industry that will have far broader applications than the theater of war,” McAdams said.

Biofuel prices could go down further, he said, but the current fuel market works against investing in biofuel production.

When Mabus announced his energy program in October 2009, oil was trading around $75 per barrel and then climbed to about $114 in April 2011. Prices have since plummeted, and on Jan. 12, the price dipped below $30 for the first time in 12 years.

“The real challenge for my industry to commercialize this stuff isn’t the ability to scale up the technology, it’s the ability to finance the facilities in a $40 crude world. That’s the real bugaboo,” McAdams said. “The financing piece to build facilities is the nut has to be cracked, and it has to be cracked at a time when we have oil prices that are at historic lows.”

The Navy has another strategy to cut its reliance on fuel at sea: It wants to use less of it, whether it comes from oilfields or herds of cattle or pools of algae.

As the auto industry tries to make more fuel-efficient cars, the Navy is investing in gas-sipping ships. The amphibious assault ship Makin Island, the so-called “Prius of the Seas,” was the first Navy ship built with hybrid gas turbines and an electric drive propulsion system, a configuration that’s estimated to save $250 million in fuel costs through the ship’s lifetime. The Navy said the ship’s cruise from Pascagoula, Miss., to San Diego used 900,000 fewer gallons of fuel than usual, saving $2 million.

The Navy is installing a similar system on some Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Like on the Makin Island, the gas turbines on destroyers are most fuel-efficient at high speeds. To conserve fuel, both types of ships switch to their electric drive system at lower speeds.

Additionally, some ships have low-energy lighting to curtail electricity use, and some have been treated with a special hull coating to reduce resistance when ships cut through water. Stern flaps have been installed on other vessels to make them more hydrodynamic.

These technologies enable ships to spend more time on combat operations before they need to rendezvous with tankers. They also leave more gas in the tank to power future weapons systems such as a rail gun or a directed-energy weapon.

If things go as the Navy hopes, the Wednesday deployment will mark a major milestone in its bid to make biofuels as much a part of warships as gray paint.

“The deployment of the Great Green Fleet shows that this is part of the normal operating procedures for our fleets, that this is nothing special,” Mabus said. “This is not a demonstration, this is part of our normal chain of events. We buy biofuels just like we buy conventional fuels, we put them in our logistics chain just like we do with conventional fuels, and by the time it gets to the fleet, there’s no difference. Nobody knows what type of fuel it is, except us in terms of how we procure it.”