US Uncovering a Great Green Fleet
Australian companies could benefit from a radical policy switch by the US Navy to wean itself off fossil fuels and tank up instead on renewable energy. One outcome of the new policy which has the backing of President Barack Obama will see a bio-fuel powered “Great Green Fleet” of US warships heading down under in 2016. Michael Richardson says the United States military is dead serious about being able to fly its planes on jet fuel derived from algae and plants and to power many of its warships on biodiesel.
Mark Dodd in The Australian (1 February 2012):
AUSTRALIAN companies could benefit from a radical policy switch by the US Navy to wean itself off fossil fuels and tank up instead on renewable energy, a visiting US energy expert says.
Details of the US Navy’s alternative fuels strategy were unveiled yesterday at the Pacific 2012 Maritime Conference in Sydney.
One outcome of the new policy which has the backing of US President Barack Obama will see a bio-fuel powered “Great Green Fleet” of US warships heading down under in 2016.
But unlike the Great White Fleet of 1907 coal burners, these US warships will be running on green energy.
The US Navy wants half its fleet powered by sustainable energy by 2020.
Speaking during a conference session on maritime fuels sponsored by the US Studies Centre, Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary, for Energy for the US Department of Navy, told The Australian that annual fuel consumption for the US Navy was 30 million barrels worth US$4 billion (A$3.7b).
However, price volatility affecting Middle-East fuel supplies had prompted a switch to green energy, Mr Hicks said.
Qantas and Virgin Airlines are also closely examining alternative fuel sources for their respective aircraft fleets.
And earlier today, Defence Materiel Minister Kim Carr announced that the RAAF’s C-130 fleet would begin a trial program aiming to improve fuel efficiency.
Mr Hicks said altruism was not a factor in seeking clean energy alternatives to power its warships.
“We’re not doing this to be cleaner and greener we (US Navy) need to be more effective in the use of our fuels and that provides us a tactical and strategic advantage,” he said.
Fuel price volatility affected the navy’s ability to maintain its fleet of 285 warships and 3700 aircraft, the energy specialist said. While the US was seeking to tap into a homegrown renewable energy sector, big opportunities existed for American allies including Australia, said Mr Hicks.
Alternative fuel sources currently under examination have been developed from algae, wood and paper waste, and surplus feedstock.
Encouraging results are also being obtained from ‘Camelina’ a close relative of mustard seed, a plant with a low requirement for water.
It all adds up to a potentially big market for non-US manufacturers, Mr Hicks said.
US Armed Forces wage campaign to go Green
By Michael Richardson in the Straits Times (30 January 2012):
This is not a drill; the United States military is dead serious about being able to fly its combat and cargo planes on jet fuel derived from algae and plants, and to power many of its warships on biodiesel from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats.
The home-grown biofuel program, which has been underway for several years, is part of a broader strategy to increase US military fuel security and reduce reliance on foreign oil by raising energy efficiency levels in the armed forces and finding cost-effective alternatives to fuel refined from oil.
To test progress, the US Navy says it will demonstrate a “green strike group” when the US and partner navies gather later this year for the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the world’s largest international maritime manoeuvres.
The last RIMPAC in June and July 2010 in the central Pacific off Hawaii brought together units and personnel from 14 countries, including Singapore. It involved 32 surface ships, five submarines, over 170 aircraft and 20,000 service men and women.
This time, planes on the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, along with two escorting destroyers and a cruiser, will run on a 50-50 blend of biofuel and regular petroleum fuel during the sea exercises.
“We think that this represents a major step in energy independence for the US,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, when he announced the move last month. He added that it was also a step towards “reducing our dependence on unstable sources of foreign energy, as well as reducing the budget shocks that come with buying fuel from potentially or actually unstable” countries.
The Navy plans to follow the RIMPAC demonstration by sending a carrier group on a multi-month deployment in 2016 using 50 per cent biofuel for surface ships and aircraft.
Dubbed the Great Green Fleet, after the famous Great White Fleet that the US sent around the world in the early 1900s to vaunt its growing military power, the long-haul despatch is intended to underscore the Navy’s determination to cut its oil use in half by 2025.
The US Air Force, the Pentagon’s biggest jet fuel user, is certifying fighters, bombers and cargo jets to run on a 50 per cent biofuel mix. It aims to switch half of the continental US jet fuel requirements to alternative fuels by 2016.
Combat and non-combat vehicles are next in line for biofuels and increased efficiency. The US military is also introducing solar power in place of diesel generators to provide electricity at its bases at home and abroad
The stated aim is to turn a profligate energy waster into the world’s most energy efficient major military force. The task is huge, but so is the patronage and buying power that the military can bring to bear.
The US armed forces guzzle far more petrol, diesel and jet fuel than any other organisation in the world.
Three-quarters of the Defence Department’s energy use supports military operations at home and in more than 100 countries around the world where US forces are active, including many in Asia and the Pacific.
In 2010, the Pentagon used nearly 5 billion gallons oil-based fuel in military operations. The bill amounted to US$13.2 billion, a 255 per cent rise on 1997 prices.
In 2008, when oil prices reached a record of US$147 per barrel, the US military spend nearly US$20 billion to secure the energy it needed. Every dollar per barrel rise in the oil price adds US$30 million a year to the Navy’s budget alone.
One of the most promising biofuel feedstocks of immediate interest to the US military is camelinasativa, an oilseed plant that comes from Europe. It belongs to the mustard family, along with broccoli, cabbage and canola, which yields a widely-used cooking oil.
Both US military planes and civilian airliners have made successful test flights using a blend of regular kerosene jet fuel and camelina biofuel.
Camelina is now being increasingly widely planted in the US by farmers using genetically engineered high-yield seeds.
It is an attractive crop because of growing demand, low fertiliser and water requirements, and growth of profitable co-products such as camelina meal and biomass as well as biofuel. The plant also grows well in Australia, Canada and Europe.
But if camelina is to become a well-established and reliable source of renewable aviation fuel, it will have compete on price with oil-based fuels. It will also have to be grown in commercial-scale quantities for refining.
Whatever the outcome, the US military’s search for alternative cost-competitivefuels to oil will continue because enhanced energy security is critical to power projection and military superiority.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies.