The U.S. military, the nation’s largest user of fossil fuels, could be the catalyst for reducing the country’s dependence on imported oil by moving to alternate energy forms  — in the process providing the demand that the fledgling industry needs to become financially viable, says Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.

The federal government uses 2 percent of all fossil fuels consumed by America, and the Department of Defense uses 90 percent of that, he said at the Mississippi State University Biofuels Conference, which attracted industry, government, and research leaders from around the nation.

As secretary, Mabus has overall responsibility for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, encompassing some 900,000 personnel and an annual budget of more than $150 billion.

In keeping with President Obama’s stated goal of weaning the military from its dependence on fossil fuels, Mabus says he has made a commitment that “by the year 2020 at the latest, at least 50 percent of all Navy energy, afloat and ashore, will come from alternative, non-fossil fuel sources. We’re doing this for one reason: to be better war fighters, to be a better military organization.”

Longer term, it is also expected that alternative energy will save money for the military.

Mabus, who was Mississippi governor from 1988-1992 and later served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, noted that “every time the price of oil goes up $1, it costs the Navy $31 million in additional fuel costs.”

When the conflict started in Libya earlier this year, he says, “the price of oil immediately shot up $30 per barrel. That was a $1 billion hit we took.

“When you’re a military organization, among the things you look at are the vulnerabilities of your potential adversaries. But, you’d better also look at your own vulnerabilities, because you know your adversaries are.

“When we did an examination of the vulnerabilities of the Navy and Marine Corps, fuel rose to the top of the list pretty fast. We simply buy too much fossil fuel from actual and potentially volatile places.

‘We would never allow some of these countries we buy fuel from to build our ships, our aircraft, our ground vehicles — but because we depend on them for fuel, we give them a say in whether our ships sail, our aircraft fly, our ground vehicles operate.”

When spikes in energy prices occur, Mabus says, “The only place we can go to get that money is from our operating accounts. That means fewer flying hours, fewer steaming days, less training, fewer operations. We simply have to find a way to insulate ourselves from these supply and price shocks.”

'Energy security is national security'

Critics, he notes, say the Navy’s focus on alternative energy,
“is just a fad — that we’re just doing it because it’s politically correct; that it’s never going to happen. But I can tell you, energy security is national security, energy security is independence — and if we don’t accomplish it as a military force, we’re taking a huge risk that is not justified.”

The jump from a good idea that works in the laboratory in small quantities, to one that is commercially scalable and price competitive has been “the valley of death” for biofuels, Mabus says. “That’s what we’re trying to help the industry get across. Making that jump is a very legitimate, very good purpose that we can use the Defense Production Act to facilitate.”

To that end, he says, “Last April, President Obama charged USDA, the Department of Energy, and the Navy to come up with a national, geographically diverse, competitive biofuels industry in the U.S. We’ve developed a plan to each invest $170 million in biofuels.”

The Navy has some ways to make it happen,” Mabus says.

“We have the Defense Production Act Title III, which says if there is an industry that’s needed for national defense … we can invest to make that industry viable. Add to that the USDA, which has the Commodity Credit Corporation, and the Department of Energy, which brings its expertise in emerging markets.”

The Navy itself represents a major market. Quoting a slogan from the movie, “Field of Dreams,” he says of the nascent biofuels industry, “If the Navy comes, they will build it.

“We’ve put out a request for information, which closed a couple of days ago, and we have more than 100 responses from the alternative energy sector, including some that use processes developed right here at Mississippi State University. We’re going to vet these very carefully — there’s got to be at least a one-to-one industry match [of government investment]. The industry will have to stand on its own after that.”

Among requirements for alternate fuels to be used by the military, Mabus says, are that, “First, it has to be drop-in fuel. We already have most of the naval fleet we’re going to have by 2020; we already have most of the aircraft we’re going to have by 2020. The fuel’s got to work in the engines and powerplants we have today.

“Second, it can’t take any land out of food production, and third, it’s got to be price-competitive in the long run.

“There are a lot of smart folks in this room, and around the country, working on alternative fuels. I think they and these three agencies can get industry across the so-called valley of death. “

 In the two plus years he’s been Navy secretary, Mabus says the price of oil has fluctuated from $71 per barrel to $117 per barrel. “In 1997, when I returned from Saudi Arabia, it was $18 per barrel; in 2000 it was $23; in 2005 it was $50; in 2008 it was $96; and the average this year has been $107.”

That kind of volatility, coupled with the potential for supply interruptions in oil producing countries, only adds urgency to the need for alternatives, he says.

There are both strategic and tactical reasons for reducing the military’s dependence on fossil fuels, Mabus notes.

 “One consideration is that Navy ships are at their most vulnerable when they’re refueling. That’s what the USS Cole was doing when it was attacked by terrorists in Yemen.

'Too high a price to pay'

“Today, we import into Afghanistan more gasoline and water than anything else. For every 50 supply convoys, we lose a Marine, killed or wounded. That is simply too high a price to pay.

It’s expensive in other ways, too. To get a gallon of gasoline to a Marine front line unit in southern Afghanistan, we have go to take it across either the Pacific or Atlantic, then put it on a truck and send it up across the Hindu Kush mountain range, or send it down through the northern distribution network, then take it all the way across Afghanistan to a forward operating base.”

A big reason for the military to move to alternative energy, Mabus says, “is to get more efficient. Although we’re a seagoing service, we also have 3.3 million acres of land and 72,500 buildings. We’re looking at everything: geothermal, hydrothermal, solar, wind, wave, and we’re becoming more efficient at everything we do.”

The Navy’s first hybrid ship, the USS Makin Island, was built at Pascagoula, Miss., and launched in September 2006, Mabus says.

“It’s a big deck amphibian, one of the biggest ships in our fleet, and on its maiden voyage from Pascagoula around South America to San Diego, it saved almost $2 million in fuel costs, based on prices of a year and a half ago. At those prices, it will save a quarter billion dollars in fuel costs. It’s got an electric drive for speeds under 12 knots [13.81 mph]. War ships don’t go that fast very often, so it can use the more efficient electric drive instead of the diesel-guzzling engines that normally drive it.

“We’re building every building in the Navy to meet energy-efficient standards at no extra cost. We’re managing life cycle costs better — looking at what it costs to operate a ship over its 30-year life, or the 20-year life of an aircraft — and we’re doing it all to be better fighters.”

A Marines unit has already proven the effectiveness and efficiency of alternate energy sources under battlefront conditions, Mabus says.

“When they were walking out the door heading for some of the toughest fighting in Afghanistan, they were given some alternative energy devices. Things like solar blankets — roll ‘em up and put ‘em in your pack, and they’ll power radios, GPS units, and other devices.

“They saved that Marines company 700 pounds of batteries and saved them being resupplied every two days, so they could stay out on patrol longer.”

Other systems enabled the Marines to cut their energy use at their main headquarters base by 25 percent, Mabus says, and to reduce fossil fuel use at some forward operating bases by over 90 percent.

“This saved lives of Marines, made them better fighters, made them more expeditionary. It saved over $50 million a year and 450 resupply flights, and 180 trucks got taken off the road.”

Still a maritime nation

Many people don’t realize, Mabus says, that the U.S. “is still very much a maritime nation — 90 percent of the world’s commerce goes by oceans, and 95 percent of the world’s telecommunications goes underneath the oceans. The U.S. Navy is guaranteeing free access to those oceans for everyone, not just our own ships.”

The Navy and Marines, he says, constitute “the most flexible, most formidable expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known. We give the president the most options in the time of crisis — but to do this, one thing we absolutely must have is fuel.”

In a following press conference, Mabus said, “It has been proven over and over that if the military provides a market first, it then moves out to the rest of the industry, the rest of America. We’re absolutely committed to homegrown sources of energy.”