The Green Strike Group: the fuels, the force, the skinny

September 13, 2011 |

Energy security and defense – biofuels are all over it. Most prominently, the US Navy’s Green Strike Group. Er, the Green Strike What?

The US Navy has announced a Green Strike Group. What exactly is that, and what does it mean for energy security, and domestic biofuels production?

Tactically, a Green Strike Group, powered by renewable diesel-electric engines, nuclear power and aviation biofuels, is able to operate independent of fossil fuel supply line threat or disruption. In the near term, this is a theoretical independence, as the Group will operate on 50/50 blends of biofuels and conventional fossil fuels. It expands the range of suppliers and the available ports of call.

Strategically, of course, the overall thrust is to foster a domestic fuel supply capable of reducing the strategic threat to the US economy and security posed by dependence on imported fossil fuels and OPEC.

There are real world reasons to suppose a connection between fuel supply and military tensions. The conversion of the British fleet from coal to oil after 1911, which enabled a more powerful, compact class of warship, has long been identified as a contributing factor in tensions that caused the outbreak of the First World War. The 1941 embargo on export of US oil to Japan is routinely cited as a proximate cause of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The US Government recently invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950, issuing a presidential finding the advanced biofuels were total to national security. The DPA authorizes the President and Congress to directly invest in the commercialization of vital defense technologies that would otherwise not reach (or too slowly reach) commercial-scale production at affordable prices.

No, it's not a Green Lucky Strike, it's a Green Strike Group

In a joint announcement by DOE, USDA and the US Navy, each branch of government is making available $170 million in previously authorized funding, and expects that figure to be matched at least 1:1 by the private sector, to provide $1 billion towards commercialization of advanced biofuels.

What the government expects, besides creating a viable advanced biofuels industry that can ultimately supply fuel for domestic aviation, road and marine transport – is to stimulate enough production of advanced biofuels that there will be enough fuel to supply its Green Strike Group, and  generate enough scale that those fuel can and will be supplied at commercially viable and affordable rates.

In short, everyone knows that, if the government tries to buy advanced biofuels made at the pilot and demonstration scale mini-factories now in existence, it will pay a fortune for its fuels, if it can obtain them at all.

What exactly, then, is the Green Strike Group, why does it exist, and why is it important that it run on at least a 50 percent blend of renewable fuels? Why advanced biofuels? When it is expected to be required?

The Navy’s fuel strategy

The Navy’s long term strategy is to supply 50% of its energy from renewables by 2020. How much is that? Well, statistics on energy consumption from the Department Energy Supply Center (DESC) generally are DoD-wide, but for fiscal 2009, DESC purchased 5.42 billion gallons of fuel, of which 80 percent represented jet fuel and most of the remainder represented diesel fuels.

At this time, military biofuels are generally approved for 50 percent blends in aviation, which thereby creates a potential demand of around 3.2 billion gallons for US military biofuels in the near term.

The Group

Back in January 2010, the USDA and the Department of the Navy signed their agreement to cooperate on the development of biofuels. Navy goals? By 2012, the demonstration of its new, fossil-fuel independent Green Strike Group, using hybrid electric-diesel systems, nuclear power, and biofuels powering both fleet and aircraft. By 2016 — put the Group to sail in a demonstration of US military power – independent of the geopolitics of oil — in a show of power reminiscent of 1907′s Great White Fleet. The Navy’s 2020 goal – across land and sea operations, is to cut fossil fuel usage by half.

The group contains:

A supercarrier, which is the centerpiece of the strike group and  flagship.

A carrier air wing typically consisting of up to nine squadrons and of 65 to 70 aircraft.

One to two Aegis guided missile cruisers (CG), of the Ticonderoga class, equipped with BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles for long-range strike capability. These ships are multi-mission [Air Warfare , Undersea Warfare, Naval Surface Fire Support and Surface Warfare;  surface combatants capable of supporting carrier battle groups, amphibious forces, or of operating independently and as flagships of surface action groups. Cruisers are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles giving them additional long range Strike Warfare capability.

A destroyer squadron with two to three guided missile destroyers of the Arleigh Burke class—a multi-mission surface combatant, used primarily for anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare, but which also carries Tomahawk missiles for long-range strike capability.

Up to two attack submarines, usually of the Los Angeles-class used to screen the strike group against hostile surface ships and submarines, but which also carry Tomahawk missiles for long-range strike capability.

A combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship, for logistic support enabling the Navy’s forward presence. It can carry more than 177,000 barrels of oil; 2,150 tons of ammunition; 500 tons of dry stores; and 250 tons of refrigerated stores. It receives petroleum products, ammunition and stores from shuttle ships and redistributes these items simultaneously to carrier battle group ships. This reduces the vulnerability of serviced ships by reducing alongside time.

The Drop-in fuel imperative

The Navy is clear – it needs diesel and renewable aviation fuel – drop-in, to spec, equal performance. Current drop-in fuels are low in the aromatic range of molecules, and that’s the reason that 50 percent fossil fuels will be used in a blend, to cure that shortfall. Bottom line: no alcohol or biodiesel fuels – although DARPA has an alcohol-to-jet fuel R&D program underway to provide renewable jet fuel from alcohol fuels, by 2013 or 2014.

Think biobutanol – Butamax, Green Biologics, Cobalt or Gevo. Though LanzaTech is working up a solution based on upgrading its ethanol production, we understand.

The delivery time scales

The Navy wants to fuel a Green Strike Group by 2012 with renewable fuels, and we don’t yet have precise figures for that demand, but think in the tens of millions of gallons per year rather than the hundreds of millions. A non-nuclear aircraft carrier like the USS Independence uses 150,000 gallons of fuel per day at top speed, and generally consumes 100,000 gallons per day in standard sea operations. Double that for the fuel to supply the jet aircraft on board, if there are continuing operations, as would be expected in a Strike Group.

The scale of military demand

Here’s a good factoid: the two-week airlift of supplies assembled for Operation Desert Shield in 1990-91, exceeded the entire 1945 Berlin Airlift in terms of tonnage. But military fuel is a special category – by weight, it represents two-thirds of all military shipments.

Why? B-52s use 3,600 gallons per hour. The F-15 fighters, with their afterburners on, consume 14,400 gallons per hour, and 1500 gallons per hour at peak thrust.

Plus, it’s more than just the engines and the aircraft. The Navy uses liquid fuels to generate all its power, and purify all its water.

Refueling and supply points

One of the aspects of the Green Strike Force that is little discussed is the problem of providing fuel for the Force’s missions around the world. Green fuel for the force, means green fuel from a dock in the Persian Gulf, if that is where the force happens to be deployed. Two possibilities – fuel is directed by the Defense Logistics Agency to the terminals where it is required – from central processing in the US – or green fuel partners can win contracts in, say, at Pacific ports. That could expand the market for drop-in fuels to other providers, down the line.

The costs to the nation

Over a 30-year lifespan of a typical biorefinery – should the government’s action, in fact, lead to the production of 600 million gallons of renewable fuels at parity to $80 oil, the cost to the public is the $510 million put up by the government, amortized over the entire gallonage. It could work out to about 2.8 cents per gallon.

If – in the above scenario – oil goes to $100 and the biorefineries continue to produce, based on long term 15-year contracts at parity with $80 oil, we would not be looking at a green premium, but a green discount. Something on the order of $285 million per year. Which would pay back that investment in a hurry, and give the nation a job-creating, energy-security-providing, emissions-reducing industry for, well, free.

The contenders

None of the above scenarios discussion represents a  guarantee that the biorefineries, at scale, will produce fuels at parity with $80 oil, but several of the contenders make bold claims that they can do that, or much better than that.

Coskata and Joule, for example, talk in terms of parity with $50 oil, or lower. And Joule’s technology, as designed, has the capability of producing jet fuel and diesel for military use. Solazyme, Envergent, Rentech, Solena, AltAir, Cobalt, KiOR, Amyris, Gevo, SG Biofuels, Sapphire Energy, and LS9 are just a few of the companies that can produce these fuels with their current technologies. LanzaTech is developing an alcohol to jet fuel product, and ZeaChem has the capability to go in the same direction, as does Mascoma and Qteros.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tags: ,

Category: News Analysis, Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.