Fighting for Biofuels

The U.S. military still sees benefits in biofuels
By Erin Voegele | August 22, 2011

U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus appeared on the television show Platts Energy Week in July to talk about the Navy’s goals and ambitions for biobased fuels. During his appearance, Mabus stressed that the Navy has always been a leader in U.S. energy innovation. “The Navy has always led when we’ve changed energy sources,” he says. “Sail to coal; coal to oil; oil to nuclear; and now I think we’re on the verge of doing that again, to change to alternative fuels.”

The Navy and Marine Corps have set an ambitious goal of utilizing 8 million barrels (336 million gallons) of alternative fuels annually by 2020. Mabus says that goal is absolutely possible. “There are so many good ideas out there right now; so many people working on this and what we can do—what the Navy can do, what the military can do—is we can bring a market,” he adds. “We use a lot of fuel and we can help get some of these smaller companies or some of these newer technologies over from being just a good idea to being commercially viable.”

Mabus, however, also notes that the alternative fuels it adopts must be useable in existing ship, aircraft and transportation vehicle engines. This is because the Navy is already operating with the vast majority of the fleet it will be employing in 2020. “We can’t go around changing engines,” he says. “We’re just changing the type of fuel that is used and it’s got to work exactly the way the fuel works today.”

During the interview, Mabus also outlined several actions the Navy is taking to support the development of advanced biofuels. This includes meeting with venture capitalists and finance organizations to educate them on the market the military offers and the types of fuels it needs. “We tell them to bring us the companies that can do it,” Mabus says.

Mabus also notes he has testified before congressional committees to encourage the revision of military offtake agreements for fuels, which are currently limited to five years. “I think people are recognizing the concern there,” he says. “It’s not just Navy; it’s government-wide. I hope there will be some progress there. You can only do five years for fuel; you can do up to 30 years for electricity, so it’s just sort of an order of semantics, but I hope we can get there.” 

—Erin Voegele