The Great Green Fleet

This January marked the deployment of the US Navy’s “Great Green Fleet”, a group of battleships capable of running on alternative fuels as well as increased energy efficiency.

The deployment of Carrier Strike Force 3 composes of one nuclear powered aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and two destroyers, alongside a fuel tanker. Its name reminiscent of Roosevelt’s 1907 “Great White Fleet” which circumnavigated the world as a display of American naval might.

The seven-year initiative began under the stewardship of Secretary of Navy Ray Mabus, who sought to move the Navy away from wide fluctuations in oil prices, improve the efficiency costs of operations, as well as developing secure sources of fuel. Although seen by politicians as vanity project by Mabus to “greenwash” the Navy’s image, as well as drawing sharp criticism for paying significantly higher alternative fuel costs compared to conventional sources.

What did the Navy hope to achieve?

As part of President Obama’s 2009 strategy to reduce US military dependency on imported fossil fuels as well as achieving environmental targets, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was charged with leading the initiative to reduce fuel consumption of the US Navy as well as implementing new efficiency measures.

Specifically the Navy hopes to have at least 50% of its fleet partly powered by non-fossil fuel alternatives, such as nuclear, conventional biofuel and algae sourced biofuel. At the moment current ships are testing blends of 10% biofuel, aiming to reach equal ratios before 2025.

Develop US/partner based fuel sources that can be produced competitively and able to be used in all ships without the need for engine modifications, also know as “Drop-in Fuels”. In addition to implementing energy saving innovations to existing and future Navy vessels,

What innovation was achieved by the initiative?

As research into non-fossil fuel alternatives had stalled for some years, the initiative gave impetus to research institutes such as the University of San Diego and nascent biofuel companies to begin development of alternative fuels capable of serving the needs of the Navy. One particular issue regarded scale, with the Navy itself consuming 1% of total US oil consumption, as well as the colossal amounts of oil need to keep battle ships sailing, meant that costs of early biofuel variants were roughly 10 to 20 times the cost of conventional fuel.

However by 2016, scales of economies, allowed U.S. made biofuel to be competitively bought at $2.05 per gallon compared to conventional fossil fuel at $3.03. Further innovations were made in terms of outfitting vessels with LED lighting systems (saving 2-3% energy) to new hull designs (marking 4% energy performance), as well as energy management systems allowing captains to decide which situations require fuel sources to be used. Advances in dual hybrid engines were also made, with the newly laid USS Makin Island amphibious assault ship propelled by both gas-electric turbines and diesel-electric motors, demonstrating an impressive saving of two to three times average fuel consumption.

How did US industries benefit?

As a part of the initiative was to develop supply chains of alternative fuel, the navy join forces with the department of agriculture providing subsidies to US farmers to grow biofuel crops as well as grants to US institutions. Just under $500 million was spent on biofuel contracts and producers, with around six biofuel companies established since 2009. And as crop yields and more efficient blends are developed, US farmers will be able to see viable returns from their efforts. Beyond the business case, investment in US renewables farming also represents a symbolic gesture with over 40% of Navy personnel originating from rural communities.

More than a vanity project.

Secretary Mabus is eager to stress the military benefits of such energy focused initiatives, with savings in one area of the Navy allowing reinvestment in others, for instance the US Marines.

”When it comes to power, my focus has been about one thing and one thing only: better warfighting […] The Great Green Fleet shows how we are transforming our energy use to make us better warfighters, to go farther, stay longer, and deliver more firepower. In short, to enable us to provide the global presence that is our mission.”

These savings will be important for the lifetime service of Navy fleets, with the USS Makin Island expected to save $250 million in its 40-year active service. In terms of geopolitical instability, fuel, according to Mabus, is a weapon for the enemy. Perpetual instability in the Middle East and frosty relations with Russia, in addition to tensions in South-East Asia are indicative of that. With the conventional fuelled vessels currently required to refuel at Chinese-owned Singaporean oil refineries, whilst Finnish-owned alternative refuelling docks lie within easy range. Longevity is also a key aspiration of the US Navy, not only will ships such as the USS Makin Island be capable of deployment of two to three times longer, but progressive developments alternative “drop-in fuel” technologies will demonstrate higher efficiency as well as cleaner emissions.

Was Mabus’ leadership successful?

If lessons can be gleaned from the leadership of Mabus, it is the necessary determination and conviction to follow through highly complex and controversial projects. Under Mabus’ leadership, the initiative was derided as his and President Obama’s vanity project, as well as drawing criticism for the initial astronomical costs for alternative fuel sources. Back in 2011, the Navy contracted 20,055 barrels of algae source fuel for a staggering $424 per barrel. But Mabus has seen through the short-sightedness of US politicians who saw little point in switching fuel sources when oil prices slumped from over $100 a barrel in 2009 to just $30 this year. In fact it reinforces his argument for weaning the Navy from fossil fuel sources considering the average 40 year lifespan of Naval vessels such as USS Makin Island.

The deployment of the Great Green Fleet highlights what can be achieved when strong leadership meets public investment in domestic firms and institutions. It particularly demonstrates the remarkable progress that can be made by biofuel companies as a result of public investment. Not only will these firms continue to innovate, but eventual diffusion of biofuel products will make it more accessible to average consumers as well as transforming transport industries. As the world seeks to wean itself from fossil fuel dependency, the Great Green Fleet may just hold the solution. So, the persons are more likely to report a higher level of happiness than if their minds were filled with everyday worries. Again, the focusing illusion.

So now we know about the difficulties of measuring happiness. Because of its relative nature and our limited working memory, we also know about the difficulty of appreciating change.

With all this in mind, how do we get an objective measure on happiness? The jury is out. But look at life in the 1950’s or 1960’s. By most objective measures, we are better off.

For now, let us take comfort in society’s progress over the last decades and let us look forward, be it absolutely or relatively.

Photos: The US Navy

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