Center for Strategic Communication

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus addresses the sailors of the U.S.S. Ingraham. Photo: U.S. Navy

Updated 7/18/12 5:52 pm.

In October of 2009, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus took the stage at a hotel ballroom in Virginia to announce the military’s most ambitious energy plan in decades: a break with the U.S. fleet’s strict dependence on oil. Instead, he declared, the Navy would get half of its fuel and power from clean, alternate sources by 2020. Leading the way would be an aircraft carrier strike group — the ultimate symbol of American naval power — running on nothing but biofuels and other renewables.

The Navy’s biofuel push could cost an extra $1.8 billion per year. No wonder Congress hates it.

Equipping this “Great Green Fleet” wouldn’t be easy, Mabus said. The Navy consumes 1.6 billion gallons of petroleum per year, while advanced biofuels are only produced in the tiniest of quantities — which means they’re insanely expensive, many times the cost of its fossil equivalent. But these were solvable problems, Mabus assured the audience. Navy ingenuity could help overcome any technical hurdles, and the Navy’s weight in the marketplace would drive economies of scale, bringing down the price of biofuel.

Right now I’m told 40 percent is a more realistic goal and even that remains difficult because of the cost and logistics,” (.pdf) he told the assembled troops and civilian researchers, comparing the effort to John F. Kennedy’s race to the moon. “But you know, our Navy and Marine Corps has never backed away from a challenge. With hard work and innovation from everyone in this room …  we can get there. To paraphrase the movie Field of Dreams: if the Navy comes, they will build it.”

On Wednesday, the Great Green Fleet is scheduled to make its first demonstration voyage in Hawaii, just as Mabus promised it would. But this is hardly the triumphant moment that the Navy Secretary depicted back in that hotel ballroom. Support for the Great Green Fleet — and for Mabus’ entire energy agenda — has collapsed on Capitol Hill, where both Republicans and Democrats have voted to all but kill the Navy’s future biofuel purchases. In the halls of the Pentagon, the Navy’s efforts to create a biofuel market are greeted with open skepticism. Even inside the environmental community, there’s deep division over the wisdom of relying on biofuels. And while the Navy has tried to deflect questions about the cost of its renewables push, a little-noticed Defense Department report shows that the Navy could spend as much as an extra $1.8 billion per year if it buys all the biofuel it’s pledged to burn.

Mabus’ signature energy effort is now at risk of being stillborn. And if it goes, it could halt the progress of the broader biofuels industry for decades. How that happened is a story of the Navy leadership’s unforced errors:

  • setting renewable goals before conducting a real analysis of the science and economics involved;
  • failing to convince the wider Pentagon community that their goals were the right ones;
  • not bothering to meet with, let alone convince, key lawmakers that the biofuel push was proper;
  • betting huge on perhaps the riskiest renewable of all.

Major change never comes easy, of course — especially when it comes to energy. And Mabus’ crew was a victim of bad timing, starting its biofuel push just as the green bubble was on the edge of bursting. But in the armed services, there is broad agreement that this dependence on foreign has to be tamed. This is the moment for military clean energy. It’s looking less and less likely that the Navy will be able to seize it.