Last July, the Navy demonstrated its commitment to alternative fuels during RIMPAC, the world’s largest naval exercises, 100 miles off Hawaii. In the exercises, the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet” carrier strike group of three warships and 71 aircraft ran on a 50/50 blend of biofuels, marking the Navy’s first operational use of advanced biofuels. “This is a great day for the U.S. Navy, but it’s a great day for America, too,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, onboard the USS Nimitz. “It shows that we can make big strides toward energy security; it shows that we can make big strides toward energy independence; it shows that we can reduce our vulnerability that we currently have because of our dependence on foreign sources of oil.”
“It shows that we can make big strides toward energy security; it shows that we can make big strides toward energy independence; it shows that we can reduce our vulnerability that we currently have because of our dependence on foreign sources of oil.”
Rick Kamin, Navy Fuels Team Lead, based at Naval Air Station (NSA) Patuxent River, says, “We flew aircraft off the Nimitz for three to five days and all the aircraft on the strike group ran on a 50/50 blend of hydroprocessed renewable jet and petroleum fuel. The demonstration proved what we had learned in the laboratory and in our test beds – that the fuel operated and performed exactly as 100 percent petroleum. And we did the same for the three surface combatants during the same time – they were using a 50/50 blend of renewable and petroleum diesel.”
The Navy Fuels Team has been testing biofuels since 2008. Kamin reports his group has completed Fischer-Tropsch fuel blend testing, will soon have a completed specification for hydrotreated renewable jet fuels, and is moving forward on alcohol to jet, in cooperation with the Army – which has not adopted any specific alternative fuel goals – and Air Force. Among the Navy and Marine Corps aircraft that have flown on biofuel blends are the F/A-18F Super Hornet, MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, MV-22 Osprey, T-45C Goshawk, EA-6B Prowler, AV-8B Harrier, and the unmanned MQ-8B Fire Scout. Kamin adds that while most of the Navy’s testing was on camilena, an oil derived from mustard seed, “we are feedstock neutral. Camilena was just representative of a class. Whether it’s plant oil, vegetable oil, waste oils, they all give you the same finished product. … In the laboratory between ourselves, commercial industry and the Air Force we looked at a number of different feedstock produced fuels from different sources and the end product is very similar. So we don’t see a need to test every oil source.”
In the laboratory between ourselves, commercial industry and the Air Force we looked at a number of different feedstock produced fuels from different sources and the end product is very similar.
Next up for the Navy, says Kamin, is getting Fischer-Tropsch and hydrotreated renewable jet fuels certified for use in the service’s JP-5 fuel. “Once they’re in the specification they’re an approved fuel and it can be produced in operational quantities as they become price competitive,” he notes. “It’s the first alternative to petroleum that we’ve put into specification since we did oil shale back in the early 1980s. So this is a culture change for the Navy. And then as we move to alcohol to jet, we’ve got some component tests coming up this summer. We hope to have an F414 engine of the F/A-18F Super Hornet tested this winter. And we go to flight testing hopefully next spring.”
Opposition in Congress
Despite the military’s progress on alternative fuels, the specter of additional budget cuts under sequestration could continue to undercut the effort to reduce service dependence on petroleum based fuels. Further, there is strong opposition by congressional Republicans based on concerns funding for a “green fuels” program is undermining spending on other defense priorities. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, for example, accuses the administration of trying to “use our military as a piggy bank to fund the president’s domestic energy agenda,” in part through a provision of the Defense Production Act whereby the Navy, Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture are funding drop-in biofuel plants and refineries to produce advanced biofuels. So far the opposition has had limited success. Last year, for example, only the Republican controlled House was able to muster the votes to amend the National Defense Authorization Act to prohibit DoD from procuring or producing alternative fuel if its cost exceeded that of a comparable conventional fuel, with this provision dying in the final conference committee on the defense bill. The House passed FY 2014 DoD Appropriations bill also attempts to prohibit the Pentagon from buying non-petroleum products in place of petroleum products.
“Use our military as a piggy bank to fund the president’s domestic energy agenda.”
When asked if he hears criticism from long-time Navy veterans that the alternative fuels program is just a “green program,” Kamin is direct in response. “Well, we’ve run across that, and it really isn’t a green program,” he says. “If you listen to Secretary Mabus, this is all about energy security and getting fuel to the war fighter and looking to increase the sources that we can produce our fuel from. The program that I’m responsible for provides data-driven decisions. Our challenge is to demonstrate these fuels work the same way as the petroleum fuels the operator is used to operating with.”
In a statement last December after Congress finalized the National Defense Authorization Act, leaving intact the ability of DoD to develop alternative fuels, Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Cheney, USMC (Ret.), CEO of the American Security Project, accurately described the program as “nascent.” He went on to say, “The U.S. military is the largest consumer of energy in the country and its dependence on fossil fuels presents serious national security risks.” He concluded the alternative fuels program “promises to break this dependence, providing the military with options while reducing its vulnerability to supply disruptions and price fluctuations.” With the price of oil at $102 a barrel, one might be led to conclude along with the general that it is way too early to dismiss the military’s prudent investment in alternative fuels.