The United States Navy is taking a big leap forward in "greening" its 50,000-strong, gas-guzzling fleet of vehicles, committing to a 50 percent cut in oil use by 2015, the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus declared in a speech at the Naval Energy Forum.
That's not all. Mabus said the Navy will attempt to get 50 percent of its total energy from alternative sources by 2020, including its ships, aircraft, tanks, vehicles and bases. Currently, that figure is at 17 percent.
The reason: The Navy's imported oil addiction is socking the service with billions of dollars in losses. The Navy's new "hybrid of the seas," the USS Makin Island (pictured above), is expected to yield $250 million in savings over its lifetime, Mabus said. The ship has an electric motor that kicks in at low speeds. The money-saving hybrid-electric systems will soon be installed on 12 vessels.
The same is true for planes. Improving the efficiency of each aircraft by just 3 percent would save the Navy 127,000 barrels of fuel per plane, per year. That's $15 million per aircraft, annually, at today's fuel prices.
What it boils down is that the geopolitics of petroleum has gotten costly. The numbers don't lie:
"It turns out that when you factor in the cost of transportation to a coastal facility in Pakistan – or airlifting it to Kandahar – and then you add the cost of putting it in a truck, guarding it, delivering it to the battlefield, and then transferring that one gallon into a piece of equipment that needs it – in extreme cases that gallon of gasoline could cost up to $400," Mabus said.
But the secretary made it clear that the Navy's new energy shift is not all about cash; global warming is also becoming a national security risk.
"The carbon that's emitted from our ships, aircraft, and vehicles is a contributor to global warming and climate change. According to the projections endorsed by our own Task Force on Climate Change, global warming could result in an Arctic Ocean free of summer ice within 25 years. The security implications of this are dramatic. In short, we have not acted as very responsible stewards of our environment."
In addition to the above targets, the secretary laid out three other goals to help change the Navy's fossil fuel ways:
Energy Efficiency: The Navy and Marine Corps will mandate that the "lifetime energy cost" of a building or system, and the cost of fuel for powering it, will be factored in when awarding contracts.
The Great Green Fleet: By 2012, the Navy will demonstrate a "Green Strike Group" in its heaviest military load. By 2016, it will sail and deploy the group as a "Great Green Fleet," composed of nuclear ships, surface combatants equipped with hybrid electric alternative power systems running biofuel, and aircraft flying only on biofuels.
50 Percent Renewable Energy in 10 Years on Bases: The Navy will boost its use of renewable energy and, in some cases, supply power to the grid from solar, wind, ocean and geothermal sources generated by the bases. The Navy is already doing this in California at China Lake, where on-base systems generate 20 times the load of the base.
The secretary said the Navy's embrace of new energy will ripple through the U.S. government, the nation and the world for decades with lasting effect.
"Altering the Department of the Navy's consumption patterns will have a broad, noticeable effect and will serve as an example for the rest of our country. The technologies we sponsor, the technologies that we fund, and the technologies that we develop to viability will be those that the United States and the world will use in decades to come," Mabus said.
Look at the past 150 years for proof, he noted. In the mid-19th century, the Navy traded in wind for coal steam technology to power its ships, and then coal for oil in 1910. These energy transformations gave America strategic, military and economic advantages. Cleaner energy holds a similar promise for the nation's future, among other bonuses, including climate protection for the whole planet.
As the secretary stated,
"We have led the world in the adoption of new energy strategies in the past. This is our legacy."
Of course, there is a catch. As the Navy Times writes, functioning without imported oil does not mean the new Navy fleet will be "green" in the way environmental groups use the term. For one thing, its "cleaner," "greener" ships will be nuclear powered, eventually producing radioactive waste.
Further, many vehicles in the fleet will run at least partially on still questionable biofuels. Fighter jets and helicopters will burn only alternative fuels.
The secretary's plan assumes a significant leap in biofuels becoming sustainable, the Navy Times wrote. A stretch, considering that the only environmentally sound biofuels for transportation – those made from algae or biomass, such as switchgrass – are not yet viable on a commercial scale, and are years away. Midwestern corn is available for mass use now, but even Mabus has acknowledged that corn ethanol offers no energy benefits and would be a short-sighted solution.