U.S. Navy Starts Alternative Fuel Use

USS Stockdale
USS Stockdale

Published Jan 20, 2016 3:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy commenced the use of biofuel as part of its regular operations on January 20 when Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack witnessed the deployment of the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group. 

The Great Green Fleet is a Department of the Navy initiative highlighting how the Navy and Marine Corps are using energy efficiency and alternative energy to increase combat capability and operational flexibility. At the close of the ceremony, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Stockdale left the pier to begin its deployment, becoming the first U.S. Navy ship running on an alternative fuel blend as part of its regular operations.

The blend fueling the Carrier Strike Group’s surface ships contains alternative fuel made from waste beef fat provided by farmers in the Midwest. It was purchased at a cost-competitive price through a partnership between the Department of the Navy and U.S. Department of Agriculture aimed at making alternative fuel blends a regular part of the military's bulk operational fuel supply. 

A focus on energy and energy-saving technology gives the U.S. Navy a military advantage, Mabus said. An amphibious assault ship like the USS Makin Island, which uses a dual electric-diesel propulsion system, can stay on station three times longer than a conventionally powered vessel. “It gives us an edge tactically; it gives us an edge strategically. It keeps … fuel from being used as a weapon against us.”

“When it comes to power, my focus has been about one thing and one thing only: better warfighting,” said Mabus. “The Great Green Fleet shows how we are transforming our energy use to make us better warfighters, to go farther, stay longer and deliver more firepower. In short, to enable us to provide the global presence that is our mission.”

Stockdale is the first surface combatant to receive alternative fuel as part of its regular operational supply. Following the ceremony, Mabus and Vilsack flew out to the destroyer USS William P. Lawrence to witness it replenishing its tanks with alternative fuel from fleet replenishment oiler USNS Guadalupe. The remainder of the Carrier Strike Group's surface ships will receive fuel from fast combat support ship USNS Rainier, which will take on over three million gallons of the alternative fuel blend in Washington State before joining the carrier strike group on deployment.

The advanced fuel blend was produced by California-based AltAir Fuels from a feedstock of beef tallow - waste beef fat - provided by Midwest farmers and ranchers, and traditional petroleum provided by Tesoro. Pursuant to Navy requirements, the alternative fuel is drop-in, meaning it requires no changes to ship engines, transport or delivery equipment, or operational procedures. The Defense Logistics Agency awarded a contract to AltAir Fuels for 77.6 million gallons of the alternative fuel blend, at a cost of $2.05 per gallon, making it cost competitive with traditional fuel.

Sailing the Great Green Fleet in 2016 was one of the five energy goals Mabus set in 2009 for the Navy and Marine Corps. It was named to honor President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, which helped usher in America as a global power on the world stage at the beginning of the 20th Century. 

The Great Green Fleet will usher in the next era of Navy and Marine Corp energy innovation, said the Navy in a statement.

Symbolism and Skepticism

Mark Cancian, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former White House budget official, said the initiative is as much about environmental symbolism as cost savings or tactical advantage.

Many congressional Republicans objected three years ago when the Navy sought and won support for defense subsidies to help three private firms build biofuel refineries. With oil now selling around $30 a barrel, that skepticism remains.

"They have not changed their position, which is that these are too expensive and not needed," Cancian said.

The Defense Department uses about 14 million gallons of fuel a day, with the Navy responsible for about a quarter of that, according to figures from the Defense Logistics Agency.

When the Navy first tested biofuel versions of marine diesel and jet fuel in 2012, it spent eye-popping sums for small amounts.

In one case it paid $424 a gallon for 20,055 gallons of biofuel based on algae oil. In another it spent nearly $27 per gallon for 450,000 gallons of biofuel, later mixed into a 50-50 blend. The $15-per gallon-cost was four times the price of conventional fuel at the time.