US Navy is Building a Green Fleet

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The US Navy's alternative-fuel powered RCB-X

The Tea Partiers may not understand how clean energy fits in with national security. But the folks whose lives are on the line certainly do – and the Army and Navy are spearheading a huge effort to break their addiction to fossil fuels.

“Every time we make changes to improve the efficiencies of our engines or systems or we use alternative sources of power, we get better and we make people safer,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit this week.

The high cost of fossil fuels

As reported by cnet’s Martin LaMonica, Mabus told the gathering of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) that the cost of fossil fuels was just too high, on a number of levels:

  • Simple dollars and cents – in Afghanistan, fuel (including transport) is the single biggest dollar cost to operations. When the price of oil jumped $30 a barrel, that added $1 billion to the Navy’s budget. Recently, oil has set an all-time high in the $110/barrel range.
  • Security – Getting the oil to bases and the battlefield is a logistical nightmare. And it makes the Navy reliant on unstable sourcs. “Our dependence on fossil fuels creates strategic, operational, and tactical vulnerabilies for our forces and makes them too susceptible to price and supply shocks caused by instability or natural disasters in volatile areas of the world where most of our fossil fuel is produced,” he said.
  • Lives – “The Army did a study and found that out of every 24 fuel convoys we use, a soldier or marine is killed or wounded guarding that convoy. That’s a high price to pay for fuel.”

Hot pursuit… of alternatives

In the face of that hard reality, the Navy has been pushing for better options:

  • One Afghan base has already cut diesel electric generation by installing solar panels.
  • Rollup solar panels are going out on foot patrols, which used to have to carry 700 pounds of backup batteries for all the new digital tech they use – Mabus noted that in the Vietnam era a patrol carried 1 radios; now it’s 30 to 50.
  • The  Great Green Fleet program aims to convert 50 percent of the Navy’s energy use to alternatives by 2020. The RCB-X, pictured at the top of the page, is powered by a blend that includes 50 percent algae-based alternative fuel.
  • In the same time frame, the Navy will bring half of its thousands of worldwide bases up to zero net-energy use.
  • At the summit, Mabus announced a partnership with the Department of Energy to work on grid energy storage options to improve reliability (and cut fossil fuel use). One possible option: Mobile storage units that could recharge vehicles .

LaMonica noted that there is some opposition to these Navy projects (including a recent Rand report that questioned the benefits of alternative fuels). But, he reports,

Mabus… said that all major energy transitions in the history of the Navy were considered too expensive and too risky by military top brass, including the move from sail to coal.

The bigger risk is that in the current budget-cutting frenzy in Congress, ARPA-E won’t get the funding it needs to push these projects through.

The Navy is probably fine (Congressional Republicans seem fine with throwing money at anything the military wants to do), but speaking at the summit, Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski warned that ARPA-E’s budget was unlikely to survive unscathed.

More on alternative energy in the military:

(Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gregory N. Juday)


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Jeremy Bloom

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue.

Jeremy Bloom has 40 posts and counting. See all posts by Jeremy Bloom