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Bio-fueling the Navy

June 24, 2014
The research component is anchored by the renowned biotech programs at University of California San Diego (UCSD), the Salk Institute and Scripps Research, which make San Diego a hotbed of biotech innovation. These institutions concentrate biologists, biotech scientists, engineers, and specialists, who in turn attract the entrepreneurs that help convert the research into products and companies.

However, it also takes real marketplace demand—often led by a few significant “early adopters”—to put a new technology to the real-world test. One very large early adopter, which also has a major presence in San Diego, is the US Navy.

The Navy’s Green Fleet program is part of a strategic effort to diversify the fuel supply chain by incorporating biofuels into the US fleet. Reliable supplies of fuel from US sources help the Navy to reduce dependence on imported oil and its inherent price fluctuations that can affect operational readiness. The effort to incorporate biofuels achieves environmental benefits as well.

The Navy’s drive toward energy efficiency incorporated numerous targets. These include making supplier energy efficiency a factor in awarding contracts; significantly reducing on-shore energy use/increasing use of alternatively-sourced energy at Navy installations, and halving non-tactical petroleum use by 2015.

From a biofuels perspective, a key announcement came in 2009, when Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus presented five goals toward reducing the Navy’s energy consumption. This included significantly increasing its use of alternative energy. Additionally, the navy committed to demonstrating a Green Strike Group by 2012 and sailing it as a battle-ready component of the U.S. fleet by 2016. (A strike group is a unit comprised of an aircraft carrier and the ships that accompany, protect, and supply it.)

A milestone occurred in Nov. 2011. The USS Paul F. Foster, a destroyer that had been decommissioned in 2003 and converted to a platform for experimental weapons, sensors and alternative fuels, departed San Diego for a 17-hour voyage powered by a 50-50 blend of an algae-derived, hydro-processed algal oil and petroleum, finishing at Port Hueneme south of Santa Barbara, Calif.

2012 Green Strike Group Demonstration

The Green Strike Group participated in the July 2012 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, considered the world’s largest international maritime exercise.

A major aspect of this effort was testing the reliability of large-scale biofuel production and delivery through Navy supply chains. In 2011, the Navy purchased 450,000 gallons of “neat” (100%) biofuel in preparation for the Green Fleet demonstration.

The fuel was blended with traditional fuels to create “drop-in replacement” blends for the exercise. These blends were 50-50 mixtures of biofuel (made from used cooking oil, camelina, and algal culture) and petroleum-based marine diesel or aviation fuel. “Drop-in replacement” means they could be used in place of existing fuels without modifications to the delivery systems, ships, or aircraft in which they were tested. Of the 450,000 gallons, Navy surface ships used 350,000 gallons of renewable diesel blended with an equal amount of marine diesel. Navy aircraft burned 100,000 gallons of renewable jet fuel blended with aviation fuel. All systems performed at full capacity.

As the principal homeport of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, San Diego hosts several Green Fleet ships, as well as the infrastructure to fuel and service them. Green Fleet ships that have and/or do call San Diego home:

The USS Princeton, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser equipped with naval guns and anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine missiles, plus other weapons.

The USNS Henry J. Kaiser, one of 18 similar Navy replenishment oilers which provide underway replenishment of fuel to United States Navy combat ships and jet fuel for aircraft aboard aircraft carriers at sea.

USS Nimitz, a supercarrier of the United States Navy, the lead ship of its class, and one of the largest warships in the world. The Nimitz homeported in San Diego from 2001 through 2012, when it moved to Naval Station Everett (Wash.).

Progress Toward Large-Scale Biofuel Production

The Navy and its biofuel suppliers have continued to progress toward reliable supply chains via a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture dubbed “Farm to Fleet”.

Announced in 2013 by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Farm to Fleet seeks to involve U.S. farmers in producing drop-in ready fuels based on grain, algae and used cooking grease as part of the Navy’s regular suppliers. Initial solicitation for the fuels begins this year for deliveries scheduled for 2015. The intended biofuel/ traditional petroleum fuel blends will range from 10 percent to the 50 percent blends used in the 2012 Green Fleet demonstration exercises. The purchases will likely exceed 70 million gallons per year.

One challenge for biofuels—which is common across industries seeking to embrace new technology—is achieving production on a scale where its costs are comparable with traditional fuels. A few early adopters bear the brunt of the early higher costs, eventually demonstrating reliability and creating enough demand for the new technology that market forces (increasingly efficient supply and increasing competition to meet demand) bring prices down.

During the 2012 exercises, the biofuels used cost an estimated $15 per gallon, while traditional petroleum-based fuels run approximately $4 per gallon. Farm to Fuel partners estimate that with growing market demand from the Navy and an increasing base of biofuel customers, thatprice will come in line with (and possibly be lower than) traditional fuels within three years. At that point, the Navy expects to be purchasing 170 million gallons of biofuel per year.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, engaging U.S. agriculture producers will produce a major positive economic impact in addition to the strategic advantages of the military running partially on domestically-produced fuel.

Biofuels Happens Here

Learn more about the Navy’s commitment to biofuel adoption during today’s Biofuels and Renewable Chemical Forum Keynote Address featuring Dennis McGinn, Assistant Secretary, Energy, Installations and Environment, U.S. Navy. Room 10, 9:00 am – 9:30 am.