Truman National Security Project

Military Leads The Way In Clean Energy Innovations

Flickr_-_Official_U-1.S._Navy_Imagery_-_USS_Nimitz_participates_in_Great_Green_fleet_demonstration.
By Michael Wu | 5.7.13
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Last month, Vice Admiral Phil Cullom, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, spoke at an Operation Free event in Norfolk, VA. He discussed the enduring and global nature of the Navy’s mission, and the Navy’s aggressive investments in advanced fuels. More than 17,000 Operation Free supporters pledged to defend those investments from Congressional attacks. But with the Navy’s biofuels program more than two months behind schedule, it’s also critical that the Obama Administration provide the military with the executive support needed to maintain the momentum behind military clean energy initiatives.

As the largest institutional consumer of liquid fuels in the world, the U.S. military is incredibly susceptible to the volatile global oil market. For every $10 rise in the price of a barrel of oil, the Navy alone is left with a $30 million budget shortfall. Since nobody knows for sure where the price of oil is going in the coming weeks or months, and since the price of oil is sensitive to geopolitical events around the world, the Navy can’t plan for price shocks and must reprogram money from essential training, readiness, and procurement programs just to keep its fleet fueled.

To protect against price shocks in the oil market, the U.S. Navy entered a joint program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy to develop the first commercial-scale advanced biofuels. These fuels are being made from innovative feedstocks, like algae and recycled waste oil, and can drop right into military equipment, like an F/A-18 Super Hornet. In fact, in July 2012 the entire USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group – including all the aircraft on the Nimitz and the ships accompanying the carrier – operated on alternative energy during RIMPAC, the world’s largest naval exercises in Hawaii.

The Navy has always played an important role in energy innovation. The Navy pioneered the transition from ships powered by sail to ships powered by coal, oil, and eventually nuclear power. Each transition enhanced the Navy’s capabilities, and the Navy’s efforts to develop robust advanced fuels today are no different. We can ensure access to clean, renewable, cost competitive, domestically produced fuels to power our ships and aircraft, and that energy security represents a palpable advantage to our Navy’s ability to project power.

The advanced biofuels program was authorized under the Defense Production Act (DPA), a program that dates back to 1950 that provides the President authority to “shape national defense preparedness programs and to take appropriate steps to maintain and enhance the defense industrial base.” According to the agreement between the agencies, the costs of the program will be distributed equally between the agencies, and private-public partnerships will be the cornerstone of each phase of development. Winners of Phase 1 of the program, which awards companies for planning and preliminary designs of production facilities, were to be announced in March 2013, but remain unknown.

Last year, the Navy’s advanced biofuels program endured significant pushback by fossil fuel advocates in Congress, in particular Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). It came out with strong bipartisan support, including 62 votes in the Senate to strip an amendment restricting DoD’s ability to purchase advanced fuels. With Sen. Inhofe the newest ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the attacks on the program already starting, it’s imperative that we keep the momentum going. Let’s secure America with clean energy, and ensure our warfighters have the support to continue keeping us safe.

Michael Wu is the Advocacy Policy Director at the Truman National Security Project and Center for National Policy.