GOP takes aim at US Navy’s great green fleet

The US military’s embrace of alternative energy seems to drive a segment a the public crazy – witness the many vituperative comments to this story about a hybrid ground combat vehicle under development by the Army. 

Now this skepticism about green warriors is gaining voice in Congress, where a House committee is trying to put the kibosh on the Navy’s “Great Green Fleet.”

Wired’s Danger Room reports that Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee want to ban the Navy from making or buying any alternative fuels that costs more than a “traditional fossil fuel.”

The move is aimed specifically at biofuels, which are set to be a featured part of the Navy’s biennial Rim of the Pacific exercise planned for June 29 to August 3 in and around the Hawaiian Islands.

This extravaganza is billed as the world’s largest international maritime exercise, and the Navy wants to use it for “surface combatant and carrier-based aircraft testing, evaluating and demonstrating of the cross-platform utility and functionality” of biofuels made from algae and refined animal fats.

The Navy said the demo “will also incorporate prototype energy efficiency initiatives such as solid state lighting, online gas turbine waterwash and energy management tools,” but none of that is drawing the ire of conservatives. Instead, they’re focused on the alt fuels, the heart of the Great Green Fleet effort, under which the Navy seeks to deploy a fleet powered entirely by alternative fuels by 2016 on its way to reaching 50 percent alternative energy use overall by 2020.

South San Francisco-based Solazyme, which ferments algae to produce oil that can be refined into fuel, is one of two big players in the Navy’s biofuels program. The other is Louisiana-based Dynamic Fuels, a Tyson Foods-Syntroleum joint venture that makes its fuel from used cooking oil and non-food-grade animal fats. 

Last December the Navy said it will pay $12 million to purchase a total of 450,000 gallons of biofuels from the companies to help power a carrier group during big maritime exercises this summer.

The biofuels do come at a hefty cost. Based on the $12 million purchase price for 450,000 gallons, the Navy is paying north of $26 per gallon for the biofuel – more than eight times the approximately $3 per gallon that petroleum-based jet fuel is going for these days. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has said the investment is worth it, for a number of reasons.

“We think that this represents a major step in energy independence for the United States in making the United States Navy a better war-fighting operation,” Mabus said, “and in reducing our dependence on unstable sources of foreign energy, as well as reducing the budget shocks that come with buying fuel from either potentially or actually unstable place on earth.”

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) is a leading critic of the Navy biofuels policy, arguing that in an era of shrinking budgets, the price premium for biofuels is a waste of money that could be spent on expanding the Navy’s fleet.

“When I look at shipbuilding, I see the secretary coming over here with a shipbuilding plan, and he won’t take a stretch goal on shipbuilding, you know, but we’re cutting down and we’re cutting down the goal that we had of 313 ships and saying no, 300 is enough,” Forbes told Navy Times last month. The Navy, in response, said there was no choice between fuel or ships, and that the Navy was supporting both.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling