ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ – As a Royal Australian Navy helicopter lands on the deck of the USS Nimitz on Wednesday, two American destroyers, a cruiser and a fuel ship are steaming alongside the aircraft carrier some 100 miles north of Oahu. The ships in the carrier strike group and the 71 aircraft on the deck of the Nimitz, including fighter jets, helicopters and transports, are all running on a 50-50 mix of petroleum and biofuel derived from algae and used cooking oil. In fact, the Aussie Sikorsky Seahawk is the only military machine except the nuclear-fueled Nimitz not powered by biofuels.
But as Rear Admiral Tim Barrett of the Royal Australian Navy greets U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, deck workers run a fuel line to the helicopter and began pumping the biofuel blend produced by Solazyme and Dynamic into the Seahawk. Minutes later, Barrett and Mabus sign a statement of cooperation pledging the two nation’s navies to collaborate on biofuels research and deployment.
“This is not just an American project,” says Mabus. “It involves allies, it involves countries just as concerned as we are about energy independence and energy security.”
With Congressional Republicans moving to derail Mabus’ plan to obtain 50% of the Navy’s energy from renewable sources by 2020 as a biofuels folly, the Navy struck back Wednesday with display of force in the first demonstration of its Great Green Fleet during the biannual Rim of the Pacific exercise involving 22 nations.
“This is very much an historic moment,” saysVice Admiral Philip Cullom, the deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness and logistics, told a group of journalists brought aboard the Nimitz on the first biofueled transport plane, a C-2 Greyhound, to land on an aircraft carrier. “We’re moving forward and we’re not going to let up. We can’t do nothing. Let’s do this.”
Says Richard Kamin, a civilian Navy employee who led the effort to certify biofuels for military use: “We’re done testing. This is the first time biofuels are being used in actual operations.”
The Navy aims to deploy a permanent green strike force in 2016.
As Mabus, top Navy brass and representatives from the airline and biofuels industries watched from a balcony above the flight deck, six biofueled F/A-18 Hornets screamed off the Nimitz on a sortie and conducted an in-fight refueling demo. Earlier, a biofueled E-2C Hawkeye, part of the Nimitz’s Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron, launched to monitor air traffic as biofueled helicopters shuttled Navy officers to other ships in the fleet.
“The military has done a lot of things that starts a tidal wave throughout our culture and I think this is one of those things,” says Lt. Commander Jason Fox, 35, a Hawkeye pilot.
The 900,000 gallons of the biofuel blend used during the Great Green Fleet demo cost about $13 million – four times that cost of petroleum. That has outraged some Congressional Republicans, a few Democrats, and subcommittees in the House and Senate have voted to bar the Navy from buying any fuel that costs more than oil. That would sink the Great Green Fleet as biofuels are unlikely to go into mass production and become cost competitive without a market that would be created by the military or industries like aviation.
But whether the nascent biofuels industry can scale up to provide the nearly 340 million gallons of fuel the Navy needs annually at a price it can afford is the big unknown.
“If you look at the reasons we’re doing it, we’re not doing it to be faddish, we’re not doing it to be green, we’re not doing it for any other reason except it takes care of a military vulnerability that we have,” Mabus says at a news conference in the Nimitz’s hanger, noting that the Navy got stuck with a billion-dollar bill in May because of rising oil prices. “We simply have to figure out a way to get American made homegrown fuel that is stable in price, that is competitive with oil that we can use to compete with oil. If we don’t we’re still too vulnerable.”
Mabus notes that biofuel prices have fallen dramatically since the Navy began the renewable energy program in 2009. But he says, “We’re not going to buy large amounts of any kind of fuel until it’s cost competitive.”
A fighter jet screamed by and interrupted Mabus’ speech.
“You just heard biofuels,” he says.
Below is a video of a biofueled F/A-18 fighter taking off from the Nimitz.