Some might think the Navy’s pursuit of renewable energy is nothing more than a ruse to “go green” and win an award from the Environment Protection Agency.
Dennis McGinn, assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, says that’s a misperception.
“We probably should win an award like that, but that is not why we’re doing it,” McGinn told In Depth with Francis Rose. “This is, in fact, looking over the horizon at the future security environment in which our Navy and Marine Corps are going to be operating.”
The Navy’s decision making about energy is wrapped up in its priorities to enhance warfighting effectiveness and operational efficiency. The Navy thinks about energy in two broad categories, McGinn said.
“One, of course, that we’re familiar with is the installation energy,” he said. “It focuses on the use of electricity, obviously, just like in the civilian sector. And then the other category is operational energy and that is primarily focuses on liquid fuels, fuels that power our combat vehicles, our ships, our airplanes, helicopters are used to carry out our missions around the world.” At its installations, the Navy is pursuing renewable energy to seek a more diversified portfolio that delivers energy resilience and security as well as lower costs. This means the Navy will be less reliant on the traditional forms of electrical production.
“The costs for renewable energy, renewable electricity are coming down dramatically,” McGinn said. “Wind, solar, we continue to pursue all forms of renewable in a couple of categories. One, just clean power that we can buy that diversifies our portfolio and lowers our costs.”
The Navy is already building systems on its installations that provide renewable energy. The Navy Air Weapons Station at China Lake, Calif., for example, has a 13.78-Megawatt SunPower Solar Power Plant to provide electricity.
On the operational side, the Navy is seeking for diversity in its transportation through investments in the biofuels industry.
Last December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the joint “Farm-to-Fleet” initiative, which would see biofuel blends becoming a regular purchase by the military for its operational vehicles.
“A secure, domestically-produced energy source is very important to our national security,” Mabus said, in a December press release. “Energy is how our naval forces are able to provide presence around the world. Energy is what gets them there and keeps them there. The Farm-to-Fleet initiative we are announcing today is important to advancing a commercial market for advanced biofuel, which will give us an alternative fuel source and help lessen our dependence on foreign oil.”
Under Farm-to-Fleet, the Defense Logistics Agency is distributing requests to biofuel producers for the purchase of biofuel blends in 2015. These products will be in the form of F-76 for Navy ships and JP-5 for helicopters and airplanes.
Not only will this send the message that the “new normal” is the Navy and Marine Corps are using biofuels, McGinn said, the blended fuel will be obtained at a price competitive with petroleum.
Shift in focus presents energy challenges
As DoD shifts its focus to the Pacific, the Navy faces significant challenges in ensuring it maintains enough fuel to power its fleet overseas.
“When you are going to the Pacific and you are dealing with those vast distances, you really need to be concerned about range and endurance,” McGinn said. “So, to the extent that our investments are investments in our existing fleet and our changes in design for future fleet, take into consideration energy as a key warfighting capability, we’re going to get more range, more payload, more endurance out there. In terms of the amount of and the type of fuel that we use, we want to use less fuel and have more mission capability out of it. We don’t want to degrade the mission at all.”
At the same time, the Navy is forging partnerships with Pacific nations like Australia as they work to develop their own systems of domestic biofuel production.
“We are slowly, but very deliberately and surely, establishing a global infrastructure for the production of biofuels to power our fleet,” McGinn said.
“Resilience” is a term used throughout the Department of Defense to describe the ability to focus on the mission at hand even when faced with adversity. The Navy’s energy portfolio must continue to be resilient, McGinn said.
“It means that you’re going to have the energy that you need where and when you need it in the quantities that you need it,” he said. “And that it is resilient to the forces of nature to potential attack and also to mechanical failure. We’re trying to create systems that don’t have single-point failures. We’re trying to diversify our energy sources, just like a financial portfolio that is resilient, you need to have diversification. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
This diversification already can be seen in the Navy’s non-tactical vehicle fleet of buses and trucks, which use natural gas rather than diesel fuel.
“On a Btu-to-Btu basis, it’s much less expensive to power some of these heavy vehicles with natural gas than it does with diesel fuel,” McGinn said. “But also, it has better environmental outcomes for our local and regional air quality because you have much less pollutants going out the tailpipes of those vehicles.”
Turning to his installations portfolio, McGinn said the Navy supports President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s request to conduct a Base Realignment and Closing round in 2017. The service learned a lot from its first experience with BRAC in 1991, following the end of the Cold War.
“We welcome a BRAC round,” he said. “We know how to do them and do them well, and they’ve produced good results. I think this would be a good analytical drill for us to go through and to see, ‘Are we in balance?’ We made a lot of changes over the ensuing 23 years since 1991, and we would welcome the opportunity to just take a look and update that.”
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.