The Navy used 20,000 gallons of algae-derived fuel for a November test in San Diego. Here, Lt. Cmdr. Frank Kim compares sample bottles of traditional diesel fuel and the alternative blend. (Candice Villarreal / Navy)
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The Navy's efforts to use alternative fuel to power its ships, aircraft and installations are coming under increasing scrutiny in Congress from a representative who's doubtful about the $1 billion being spent on initiatives over the next year and questioning whether greening the fleet is something the Navy can actually accomplish, let alone actually use to become a mightier service.
However, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has compared his work and the skepticism he's facing with the resistance other secretaries faced when switching from wind to coal, from coal to oil and from oil to nuclear power, is confident the Navy's investment in the burgeoning green fuel industry will develop the alternative fuel market and drive down costs. Beyond that, he says, it will make the service stronger.
"If we made all of our decisions on the cost of a new technology, we wouldn't have nuclear submarines today. We wouldn't have nuclear carriers today. We wouldn't have computers today because they're a lot more expensive than typewriters," he said in an interview.
But Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., doubts Mabus' goals, particularly the plan for 50 percent of the Navy's energy to come from alternative sources.
"We don't know where he came up with 50 percent — if he did it on his way to work one day, if he did it talking around the water fountain, or if there's a study," Forbes said during a March 29 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing. "Secondly, he says this is a goal, but it may not be a realistic goal, it may be a stretch goal, whatever that goal would be. And the thing is we, the committee, have no idea what that would cost."
Biofuels are generally several times as expensive as petroleum-based fuels — the Navy, for example, paid about $26 a gallon in December for 450,000 gallons of a blend of used cooking oil and algae — and there's a concern among Republican lawmakers that their use would never become economical.
Ships vs. biofuel? Navy says ‘false choice'
Forbes, whose district includes a large portion of the nation's shipbuilding workforce, questioned why Mabus wasn't as enthusiastic about making a bigger Navy as he is about his energy programs. He said the Navy should set as challenging a goal for building new ships as it has for expanding the alternative fuel market.
"When I look at shipbuilding, I see the secretary coming over here with a shipbuilding plan, and he won't take a stretch goal on shipbuilding, you know, but we're cutting down and we're cutting down the goal that we had of 313 ships and saying no, 300 is enough," Forbes said.
The Navy questioned Forbes' reasoning that less spending would mean that there would be more money to build ships.
"Rep. Forbes is comparing apples to oranges. He is trying to create a false choice between fuel and shipbuilding. It's not a choice of fuel or ships. We need both," said Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, at the hearing.
The shipbuilding plan is based on defense needs and fiscal limitations. Meanwhile, increases in fuel costs have resulted in a $939 million shortfall in fiscal 2012. Investing in alternative energy and reducing the dependence on the volatile fuel market is aimed at insulating the Navy from price spikes, Pfannenstiel said.
The Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan, which Congress received in late March, slightly reduces the shipbuilding rate. Through 2042 there will be an average fleet size of 298 ships, seven fewer than last year's plan. Today's Navy has 282 ships.
Further, when the Navy set its 50 percent fuel goal, 17 percent of the energy used in operations came from nuclear power. Another 19 percent of power at installations came from alternative sources, Pfannenstiel said.
While Forbes is combing over the Navy's initiative, other congressional representatives are praising the Navy's energy program, and the other services are looking at the Navy's work for guidance on their own initiatives. Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, said the service has the best approach because it considers all the potential benefits of its energy programs.
Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, said the Navy is leading the military's efforts to monitor energy efficiency at installations. And the Air Force is in the process of testing all of its aircraft types with alternative fuels.
The Navy finished testing every aircraft model last year and has also tested surface ships.