On Land, Air and Sea, a Retrofit Mission

Associated Press The Blue Ridge LCC19, a Navy command ship, in Busan, South Korea, this week. The United States hopes to slash fossil-fuel use by Navy and Marine ships, aircraft, vehicles and dwellings.

Want to stimulate demand for renewable energy? Send in the Marines.

That was Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s message when he outlined plans to slash the Navy and Marine Corps’ dependence on fossil fuels during an appearance on Monday evening at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

“We use in the Navy and Marine Corps almost 1 percent of the energy that America uses,” Mr. Mabus said. “If we can get energy from different places and from different sources, you can flip the line from ‘Field of Dreams’ — If the Navy comes, they will build it. If we provide the market, then I think you’ll begin to see the infrastructure being built.”

“Within 10 years, the United States Navy will get one half of all its energy needs, both afloat and onshore, from non-fossil fuel sources,” he added. “America and the Navy rely too much on fossil fuels. It makes the military, in this case our Navy and Marine Corps, far too vulnerable to some sort of disruption.”

Reaching those renewable energy goals will be a gargantuan challenge. The Navy operates 290 ships, 3,700 aircraft, 50,000 non-combat vehicles and owns 75,200 buildings on 3.3 million acres of land.

Last year the Navy launched its first electric hybrid ship, the Makin Island, an amphibious assault vessel that some have dubbed the Prius of the seas. On its maiden voyage from a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., to its home base in San Diego, the Makin Island saved $2 million in fuel costs, Mr. Mabus said.

“In terms of our fleet, we have most of ships we’re going to have in 2020 so we know what we have to do to change that,” he said in a conversation with Greg Dalton, a Commonwealth Club executive. “We can do things like retrofit ships with hybrid drives. Mainly it’s changing the fuels.”

Two days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, a Navy pilot flew an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet powered by a biofuel blend made from the seeds of camelina sativa, an inedible plant.

“The plane flew at Mach 1.2, almost 1,000 miles an hour,” said Mr. Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi who has been charged with overseeing the gulf’s restoration from the oil spill. “We named it the Green Hornet. The Green Hornet shows the ability to fly using biofuels and we’re beginning to test this summer on the surface fleet.”

On land, he said the Navy aims to halve fossil fuel use in its 50,000 automotive fleet by replacing vehicles with cars that run on electricity and biofuels.

Other efforts will be less cutting-edge, like installing smart utility meters on Navy bases so commanders can track their electricity use.

“One base commander showed me his electric bill, and 15 percent of the energy coming off the base was itemized,” Mr. Mabus said. “The other 85 percent said line loss, which meant the energy was going somewhere but nobody knew exactly where.”

The Navy aims to make its bases net zero consumers of energy in a decade by installing solar panels, wind turbines and tapping geothermal power.

“Right now there’s two hurdles to alternative energy — one is cost of that energy and the other is infrastructure for it and the military can create a market for both of those,” Mr. Mabus said. “This change in power and the sources of power and the uses of power makes us better war fighters.”

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