WASHINGTON — The Navy is leading the nation in the quest for alternative energy sources, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said here yesterday, and “it is doing so primarily for one reason: it makes us better warfighters.”
Speaking at an industry energy, environment, defense and security conference, Mabus embraced the Navy’s role as a leader in the alternative energy movement that he said can lay the foundation for government and industry to follow.
The Defense Department is America’s largest user of biofuels, Mabus said, and the Navy and Marine Corps account for about one-third of that use. Reliance on biofuels, he added, increases security risks and puts the military at the mercy of “price shocks” in the oil and gas industry.
Fuel supplies make up the most truck convoys in Afghanistan, Mabus said, and one U.S. Marine is killed by an insurgent attack for every 50 convoys that make the long trek through Afghanistan.
For its part, the Navy is adapting to alternative fuels in the same way it adapted from sail to coal, Mabus said. On Earth Day last year, he noted, the Navy demonstrated a 50/50 blend of biofuels and a mustard seed alternative in a supersonic F‑18 Hornet flight.
The USS Makin Island amphibious assault ship uses a hybrid system of an electric engine for speeds under 12 knots and diesel power above that speed, the secretary added. By 2020, at least half of the Navy and Marine Corps’ energy use must come from nonfossil fuels, he said.
“We’ve adapted, we’ve been flexible, and that’s what has made the Navy and Marine Corps the most powerful expeditionary fighting force on Earth,” Mabus said.
The push for alternative energy requires some upfront costs, but will produce a high return on that investment, Mabus said. By reducing flights by 180 and taking 450 tankers off the roads, he said, a $40 million investment could save the Navy $65 million per year on the energy used by one Marine unit.
The Marine Corps has realized the benefits of alternative energy firsthand in Afghanistan, the secretary said, where at least two forward operating bases in Helmand province are run entirely on solar power and others run mostly on solar. The Marines also use solar power to reduce their reliance on and heavy batteries, he added.
The Marines have embraced alternative energy not because they were forced to or wanted to follow a trend, Mabus said, but because they have seen results on the battlefield.
“Nobody’s ever accused the Marines of being tree huggers,” he said. “What they’re really good at is warfighting, and they’re aware of how energy affects that.”
Navy leaders are reaching outside their usual circles, including talking to venture capitalists, to create an environment favorable for industry to pursue research and development in alternative energies and Defense Department contracts in those areas, Mabus said. “We’re trying to get companies past ideas and into production,” he said.
The Navy now considers total ownership costs of equipment, including a lifetime energy supply, in all its acquisitions, Mabus noted. Organizations that aren’t pursuing alternative energies “can say right now that the infrastructure is not in place, he added, but they won’t be able to say that much longer.”
Mabus said the Navy has rules for alternative fuels:
— They must be “homegrown” to avoid foreign reliance;
— They can’t impede food production; and
— They must be usable with existing vehicles.
Increasingly, Mabus said, researchers are testing nonfood items such as algae, tree limbs and wheat stalks as alternative energy sources that would not affect food production. One naval research patent, he noted, tests fuels from the bottom of a sea bed.
“The American military can be a catalyst to do this — to move from the fossil fuel economy we’ve got to one of alternative fuels,” he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)