So last week the Navy sailed an old Spruance class destroyer, the USS Paul H. Foster up the California coast running on 20,000-gallons of algae-based biofuel mix in the latest and largest test, to-date, of the Pentagonâ€™s efforts to run its vehicles on alternative fuels.
(on a side note, the Foster is the last remaining Spruance class ship in service, the Navy uses her to test out new weapons and self defense technology as its Self Defense Test Ship.)
As expected, no one noticed any difference between running the ship on biofuel mixed with petroleum versus running on pureÂ petroleum. The Fosterâ€™s 17-hour cruise served as a test run for the Navyâ€™s plan to send a carrier battle group on a biofuel-powered cruise sometime next year. Like previous tests involving alternative fuel mixes, that cruise should be a non-event with no one able to tell the difference between running the ships on aglae-based fuel and standard fuel.
The real question surrounding the militaryâ€™s use of alternative fuels is whether or not it can use its status as the governmentâ€™s largest energy buyer to drive down the costs of biofuels so that they can compete with traditional petroleum.
As you know, alternative fuels make sense from a national security perspective. The Pentagon is interested in moving its bases off the vulnerable and aging national energy grid by powering them with wind and solar energy plants. Meanwhile, powering ships, planes and ground vehicles with biofuels made in the United States means the military will be less vulnerable to disruptions in foreign oil supplies.
Still, shifting from petroleum to biofuel will require the military to put down significant up-front investment in expensive alternative fuels to drive prices down at a time when the budget-makers are looking to cut billions from defense coffers. Weâ€™ll see what happens.