Sky’s the limit on Navy’s biofuel focus

Source: By Bill Loveless, USAToday • Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2016


U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has made alternative energy a top priority since taking office in 2009, but this week he took his commitment to new heights, literally.

The civilian leader for the Navy climbed aboard an EA-18G Growler fighter jet as a passenger on one of a series of test flights using 100% biofuel.

Biofuels are not new for the U.S. Navy and Air Force, which have been experimenting with blends on aircraft and ships for several years. In fact, all Navy ships and aircraft are now certified to run on up to 50-50 blends of conventional and alternative fuels.

But the flights taking place this month at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland mark the first time the Navy has gone all out to experiment with biofuels for aviation.

Mabus posted photographs of his trip on his official Facebook page Monday, saying it offers another example of progress toward a goal he set for the Navy, including the Marine Corps, of meeting half of its energy needs with alternative sources by 2020.

The man spearheading the Navy’s move to green energy on air, at sea and on land, Dennis McGinn, says the military service will meet that target, with biofuels increasingly contributing to the success.

The Navy has already done so at its bases and other onshore facilities, with more than 1 gigawatt of electricity generated by solar, wind and other alternative power sources.

Now, Mabus and McGinn look up in the air and out to sea to finish the task.

“This will be part of the new normal,” McGinn, the Navy’s assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, told me recently on the Columbia Energy Exchange, a podcast at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy. “We’ll be putting biofuel blends into our ships in the form of marine diesel. We’ll be putting it into our helicopters and our jet aircraft.”

Navy tests of biofuels in aircraft began in 2010, when an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet flew on a 50-50 blend of conventional jet diesel fuel and biofuel made from camelina, a plant whose pods contain small, oily seeds.

Other trials took place in 2012 when the Navy used similar blends of fuel on both aircraft and ships during a Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise.

At that time, the biofuel cost $26 a gallon, well in excess of the cost of regular marine diesel and jet fuel, McGinn said.

But for the most recent RIMPAC, held this summer, the government paid $2.15 a gallon to AltAir Fuels, a California refiner, a price on par with that of conventional fuels.

In those exercises, the Navy concentrated on biofuels in ships, with a blend of 10% fuel from beef tallow mixed with marine diesel.

“We’re at a 10% blend now, depending on price and availability,” McGinn said. “Then we’ll start seeing blends for marine fuel and jet fuel at 20% (biofuel), 30%, and building up.”

Among other recent green breakthroughs for Navy ships is the installation of hybrid electric drive systems on some Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers, which McGinn said can extend the time they can go without diesel refueling by as many as four days.

“I jokingly say it’s the Prius of the seas,” he added.

The U.S. armed forces aren’t the only flight operations looking increasingly to biofuels; commercial airlines are doing so, as well, as tests show the alternative is a reliable option that can reduce their carbon emissions.

In April, for example, United Airlines began using a blend of 30% biofuel and 70% regular jet fuel for flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We didn’t just fill up the jet and fly it,” McGinn said of the Navy’s involvement over several years now. “We did an extensive amount of ground testing, a lot of measurements at every point along that jet engine, (and) from going into the fuel tank to coming out the exhaust. It was done well, and we’re very confident, as we will be in this 100% blend test (in September), that it’s going to work.”