Navy biofuel initiative courtesy of USDA.

Come Hell Or High Water, Great Green Fleet Will Sail

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The US Navy plans to launch an entire biofuel-enabled Great Green Fleet in 2016, complete with fighter jets, helicopters, destroyers, and other ships, despite attempts by certain members of Congress to block it from buying biofuels. The notorious budget sequester hasn’t proven to be much of an obstacle to the military biofuel program, either. In the latest development, the Department of Defense has just nailed down $16 million in matching funds for three companies to build biofuel refineries to the tune of 150 million gallons in capacity by 2016, all using non-edible sourcing including animal fats and other waste from food processors.

DoD issues 3 contracts for biorefineries
Navy biofuel initiative courtesy of USDA.

More Biofuel For The Department Of Defense

The military biofuel program cuts across all branches of the Armed Services, but the Navy has been the most aggressive in pursuit of a new fuel future. That’s a particular imperative as US national security pivots attention to the Pacific theater.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at those new contracts. We were tipped to this story by Jim Lane over at Biofuels Digest, who got it from Nick Taborek at Bloomberg last week. According to Taborek, the goal for the three refineries is to produce biofuel at cost parity with conventional fuel, at less than $4.00 per gallon.

The cost parity issue is absolutely vital, because the anti-biofuel contingent has been able to use the relatively high cost of military biofuel purchases as the hook for its legislative agenda. If and when the cost differential evaporates, so do the objections.

The other anti-biofuel legislative strategy has been to prohibit the Navy from building its own biorefineries, and the new private sector biorefinery contracts effectively make that a moot point.

The refineries will be built by Emerald Biofuels of Illinois, Natures BioReserve of Nebraska, and Fulcrum Brighton Biofuels of California.

If Emerald Biofuels rings a bell, you might be thinking of a collaboration between the Honeywell company UOP and the Italian company Eni, which resulted in a biodiesel refining method they’ve dubbed Ecofining. The system can be constructed as a retrofit on conventional refineries, and it can be adapted to different feedstocks including algae oil and beef tallow.

Fulcrum specializes in household waste-to-biofuel processing, and Natures Bioreserve apparently focuses on refining beef tallow into biofuel.

As for how the contracts were awarded despite strategic opposition in Congress, that would be under the Defense Production Act (DPA). As noted on this site last year, DPA is a 1950’s era law that enables federal support for materials and systems deemed vital to national security, and as such it is relatively immune from year-to-year political posturing.

If you have the time, it’s worth checking out the DPA website, which lists scores of projects that come under its umbrella.

From White Fleet To Green Fleet

Getting back to that point we raised about the Pacific theater, a bit of military history is in order. From 1907 to 1909, the United States set off to demonstrate its power in the Pacific theater by launching a fleet anchored by 16 brand new destroyers called the Great White Fleet, which somewhat ironically belched great black clouds of smoke from coal-fired boilers as it chugged along its around-the-world route.

The voyage was a success but it also pounded a final nail into the coffin of coal as a strategic fuel for a 20th century naval force, as was perhaps intended by then-president Theodore Roosevelt. When he initiated the Great White Fleet, he made it clear that the voyage was not meant to be a cakewalk but a shakedown cruise that would expose any cracks in the Navy’s ability to send ships from its Atlantic seaboard shipyards, across the globe to the Pacific.

The superior fuel that soon replaced coal was of course petroleum (later supplemented by nuclear power). Petroleum had a good run in the 20th century but, according to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus it is falling far short now. He had this to say at the 2011 ARPA-E Energy Summit (do read the whole speech):

“…Our dependence on fossil fuels creates strategic operational and tactical vulnerabilities for our forces and makes them too susceptible to supply and price shocks caused by instability or natural disasters in volatile areas of the world…we would never allow these regions to build our ships. We would never allow these folks to build our aircraft or our ground vehicles, but we give them a say on whether our ships sail, our aircraft fly or our ground vehicles work.”

Keep in mind that the US domestic petroleum market is joined at the hip to decisions made by a relatively small group of nations and global corporations, and you can see why the future of US energy security lies in a far more diversified fuel landscape than petroleum can offer.

That leads us to the Great Green Fleet, which by its reference to the Great White Fleet is designed to project US sea power into the next century. The Great Green Fleet will be anchored by a nuclear carrier but will rely heavily on biofuels for other ships and aircraft. As an interim step, last summer the Navy launched its first Green Strike Force during the biannual Rim of the Pacific multinational naval exercise.

As far as we know, launch of the Great Green Fleet is still set for 2016.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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