DoD and Navy persist with biofuels, like it or not

Despite a recent wave of opposition, the Pentagon says it's locked in to its often costly goals for alternative energy.

Just like a school of fish, the conservative media and message machine can turn with amazing quickness when it gets new tasking, or develops a consensus.

If you watch carefully, for example, you can spot the same basic points appear over and over about the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial in Washington. Conservatives don’t like the design submitted by architect Frank Gehry. It’s been in the works for years, but for some reason, within the past few weeks, critics have attacked it from all sides, in blogs, columns and live events in Washington.

The same goes for the Navy Department’s ambitions for biofuels and alternative energy. They’ve been on the books for years. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has convened photo op after photo op with his counterparts in the Departments of Energy and Agriculture. Reporters have documented contract after contract in which the government has broken new records for the cost of fuel. And until recently, nobody cared.

Then, late last year, there was suddenly a flurry of interest from CNS News; Hot Air; the Heritage Foundation’s blog; and Fox News. And this year, when Mabus appeared before the House Armed Services Committee, Republican members swarmed in to attack his alternative fuel plans as a waste of precious dollars in a time of austere budgets. Since 2009, the Navy has been paying anywhere from $16 to $40 per gallon — or more — for its various batches of alternative fuel, but it was only recently that anyone appeared to take notice.

Part of the reason could be the bankruptcy of the California solar-panel maker Solyndra, which folded despite loan guarantees from the Obama administration. Administration critics smelled corruption and cronyism, and the focus on Mabus and the Navy might have looked like a logical next step in that context. Another reason could be a side effect of the Navy’s own message strategy, to partly characterize the alternative fuel effort as “green” in the Earth Mother, tie-dye, Birkenstock sense, rather than a tactical boon to make units less dependent on supply lines. The two audiences for those two messages don’t usually interact.

Whatever the ultimate source of the recent pushback to the Navy Department’s alternative energy plans, it apparently is not working. The service announced Friday that it undertook its latest test with biofuels at sea, this time aboard the frigate USS Ford. The Ford sailed down to San Diego from its homeport in Everett, Wash. on a 50–50 blend of biofuel and marine diesel, and the ship’s main engines drank it down just fine.

Here’s what the Navy said:

Meeting the secretary of the Navy’s call for a drop-in fuel replacement, no changes were required to the infrastructure of the ship or fueling pier for the test. The blended fuel was stationed on a barge in Puget Sound off Bremerton, Wash., and immediately available to the Ford for testing.

“We didn’t embark any personnel or instrumentation for the transit because we wanted to minimize impact to the ship’s normal operations and because we weren’t conducting the same quantitative tests and analysis we’ve done previously,” said [NavSea engineering manager Richard] Leung. “Instead, we provided the ship’s engineers a list of fuel and engine performance system questions and parameters, so they could provide feedback on how the ship performed using the blend as compared to its typical fuel.”

The ship burned all 25,000 gallons during the transit, and according to Leung, feedback from the ship’s engineers was favorable.

“The crew reported no change in their typical procedures when receiving, handling, or processing the biofuel, and said operational performance of the fuel system and gas turbine engines on the blend was almost identical to operations on traditional F-76,” said Leung.

“Having feedback from the Ford’s engineers is extremely useful as we move forward with validating the algal oil blend, and as we prepare for the upcoming Green Strike Group demonstration later this year,” said Greg Toms, NAVSEA technical warrant holder for Fuels and Lubricants. “We’ll again be limited on the data we can collect during that event and will ask similar questions to continue measuring operational user feedback.”

The announcement did not say how much the Navy paid for the biofuel the Ford burned, but at, let’s say, $16 per gallon times half the 25,000 gallons, that’s about $200,000 for just the biofuel in this test. Compare that to roughly $75,000 for a load of standard marine diesel, and you can see where the cost argument comes from.

Mabus and other alternative fuel boosters acknowledge upfront the service is paying a lot more than it would for traditional petroleum, but that’s the point: The Navy has to help fuel-makers cover their research and it has to create a market and economies of scale that could one day make biofuel competitive. Even if biofuel does not cost the same as oil, Mabus has said, it could still be a better deal for the Navy because it would be immune from the price shocks that can hit the standard energy market.

He has so far been undeterred by critics, and in fact plans to continue taking his message to outside audiences. On March 12, the Navy plans to host the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge at its pier in Norfolk, where Mabus and other witnesses will talk about the department’s energy-saving and biofuel programs.

And it’s not just the Navy. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday announced a whole alternative energy implementation plan for the entire Department of Defense.

“Smart use of energy can be a strategic advantage for the U.S. military against our adversaries,” he said. “As we continue to invest in the best military force to defend America today and tomorrow, I want the department to harness the best energy innovations at all levels, from the individual warfighter to the largest installation, to enhance our operational effectiveness and deliver more bang for the buck.”

(If you’re keeping score at home, DoD’s plan says that Mabus’ proposed “Great Green Fleet” — the strike group he wants to field in 2016 using no fossil fuels — will require 3 million gallons of biofuel.)

It’ll be interesting to watch whether Panetta’s involvement means alternative energy skeptics throw in the towel — or step up their attacks.