Navy Secretary Ray Mabus hit back Wednesday at critics of his seven-year push to make the Navy more energy efficient and introduce alternative fuels, saying these initiatives have made SEALs harder to track on the battlefield and saved the lives of Marines.
Mabus, who is coming to the end of his tenure in the Navy’s top civilian post, said at a National Press Club event in Washington, D.C., that the Navy has reached its goal of deriving at least half of its energy used ashore from non-fossil fuel sources ahead of his 2020 deadline, and that sea and air components are on track to achieve the same objective within the next four years.
Meanwhile, he said, sailors are updating fuel use practices and using technology to get more out of less, a practice that is paying dividends operationally.
“These efforts are making our SEAL teams far more stealthy, to the point they’re getting close to net zero in terms of both energy and water,” he said. “They’re using alternative energy in the field to purify water so they can stay out far longer.”
Marines downrange are also employing foldable and roll-up solar panels that can charge their devices, minimizing their reliance on heavier batteries, Mabus said.
“We’re saving 700 pounds of batteries per company that they don’t have to hump and they don’t have to be resupplied,” he said. “And our bases are more resilient if we ever have an attack on our grids.”
At the recommendation of a Navy chief petty officer, Mabus said, the service is retrofitting all of its ships with LED lights during scheduled shipyard maintenance time, a small energy-saving move that will add up when applied to the entire fleet.
“Just changing the lightbulbs saves 20,000 gallons of fuel per year, per destroyer,” he said.
The Navy’s move to install hybrid electric propulsion drives on some amphibious assault ships and destroyers, beginning with the amphibious assault ship Makin Island, has shown early successes, he said.
During the Makin Island’s first deployment in 2011, the ship was at sea 44 days longer than the other ships in its amphibious ready group and brought home almost half its fuel budget, Mabus said.
Becoming less reliant on fossil fuel in the field will also keep ground troops safer as fuel prices historically trend upward, he said. In 2009, when Mabus began his tenure, he said the Marine Corps was suffering one casualty — a service member wounded or killed in action — for every 50 fuel convoys brought into Afghanistan.
As the Corps has drastically reduced deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the service is using 60 percent less oil than it did then, Mabus said. The Navy has reduced its consumption by 15 percent in the same timeframe.
Mabus also hailed the success of his most controversial initiative: the Great Green Fleet, a carrier strike group powered by a beef-tallow biofuel blend that was announced in 2009 and deployed at the beginning of this year.
When Mabus debuted a smaller demonstration of the concept at the Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2012, the Navy purchased 450,000 gallons of algae-based fuel at about $26 per gallon, a price that alarmed some members of Congress and resulted in a law prohibiting the bulk purchase of alternative fuels at prices that aren’t competitive with traditional fuel sources.
“There were those who criticized the price we paid for a small amount of test biofuels we bought in 2012,” Mabus said. “But those same folks are really strangely silent after we bought operational quantities this year as part of our regular fuel purchase for less than $2.14 a gallon, a price that is absolutely competitive with conventional fuel.”
At this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise in August, Mabus said, ships from nine other countries accepted drop-in alternative fuels from one of the Stennis Carrier Strike Group ships that made up the Great Green Fleet.
Mabus, who has frequently invoked climate change fears as a reason for reforming Navy and Marine Corps energy practices, said the primary reason for these reforms is for the benefit of the warfighter.
“I do not want to be dependent on China for my fuel in the Western Pacific,” he said. “I want to have that option, the choice of doing something else.”