The U.S. Navy and Biofuels – Part III

This is the concluding installment of my recent interview with Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy). Part I discussed the overall goals of the Navy’s biofuel efforts, and in Part II we covered why coal-to-liquids (CTL) is presently off-limits, and why GTL may be as well. Part III picks up with the human cost of moving fuel into the theater of operations.

The editor of Consumer Energy Report, Sam Avro, joined me in this interview and our questions below will be denoted as “RR” or “SA”. Mr. Hicks’ responses are “TH”.

RR: I saw a recent story that once fuel actually makes it to the theater of operations, it can cost $400 per gallon when all the costs are added up. So are you putting any emphasis on producing the fuel locally? For instance, are you funding efforts that could enable you to produce fuel onsite in Afghanistan?

A U.S. Army fuel convoy in Ninawa province, Iraq. (Credit: USMC - Lance Cpl. Kelly R. Chase)

TH: Yes, I can point you to several efforts. In terms of working with say the Afghan population, and looking to them to create alternative fuels; that’s something that the Department of Defense and my understanding is maybe some other federal agencies are working on to create and stimulate those opportunities. And that’s really more their role to do that. What we are looking to do is to make our expeditionary units more efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels, and we are doing that in a number of ways.

One great example of us reducing our fuel tether, if you will, is our experimental forward operating base. This is something that in March the Marine Corps created in Quantico, Virginia – at the Marine Corps Base Quantico; an experimental or mock forward operating base. And the purpose of that was to test a bunch of alternative fuel technologies, renewable energy technologies so that they could reduce the amount of fossil fuels that they use in theater.

And just to give you a sense – and this is based on Army study – but for every 24 fuel convoys that we bring into the theater, we have one casualty. So that’s one soldier, one marine, killed or wounded who is not otherwise fighting the fight or engaged with the local population to build a nation. That’s a big part of what is driving this as well, that there is a human cost to this; a big price to pay and we are very concerned about that. So with that forward operating base, they identified a number of technologies that seem to have a lot of promise, and they further tested those technologies at a war-gaming exercise to see if they could hold up to the rigors of the battlefield.

From there, they took the best ones out of that exercise and trained a Marine Corps brigade that was deployed just over six months after it was initially tested. So those technologies are in theater today, and just six months ago they were just being tested. And that’s all to the point of reducing our dependence on our generator sets which are all using petroleum products, and being able to lighten the load and be more independent; to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels.

SA: When you talk about technology, are you talking about running their energy systems off of solar or things like that? Can you expound upon that?

TH: Yes, that’s a part of it. As well as things like LED lighting in the tents; having shades that serve two purposes; not only making the tents cooler, but they also have PV embedded in them to generate power. Those are a couple of examples. There are some others where we are putting out PV-generated refrigerators; so that all of the meals-ready-to-eat are kept at the appropriate temperature so they don’t spoil so the marines have food to eat when they are in theater. And all of those things would otherwise be tied to a generator that uses petroleum. Each barrel and each gallon we can take out of theater is one more we don’t have to bring in and stretches out the number of fuel convoys we ultimately need.

SA: Are you in a dedicated department where you deal with the Navy’s energy issues? Do you have a staff working under you? Can you explain the organizational structure?

TH: So, my office works under the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for what’s now Energy, Installations, and Environment. In the past it was Assistant Secretary for Installations and the Environment, but now it’s Energy, Installations, and Environment. And that energy piece is not just related to installations, it covers the entire gamut of our energy use, from our tactical, expeditionary to our facilities and our commercial vehicle fleet; our non-tactical vehicle fleet.

In terms of staffing, I have a Director of Operational Energy, who really deals with all the tactical issues; I have a Director of Shore Energy, and I have another gentleman who is really my Chief of Staff and also deals with special projects that we have on energy issues. Below that we have some additional support; some more junior level support for each of those individuals as well. So that’s how we are currently staffed up.

SA: Is the staff comprised of civilians, or does it include naval officers and enlisted personnel too?

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway tours an experimental, self-sustaining forward operating base demonstrated aboard MCB Quantico in March of this year. (Credit: USMC - Cpl. Meloney R. Moses)

TH: My office is entirely civilian, but there is a Marine Corps and Navy uniformed analog to what the Secretary does. So, we have a Secretary of the Navy, but you also have a Commandant of the Marine Corps and a Chief of Naval Operations. So those two uniformed folks work for the secretary. So what we have is the Secretary, we have a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, there is the Naval Energy Coordination Office, and they head up all the Navy tactical issues. We also have the Marine Corp Expeditionary Energy Office and they head up all of their tactical issues and technical energy issues. We also have installations on both the Navy and Marine Corps, and those are headed up by uniformed side as well. So, kind of think of it as a matrix; there is shore and tactical; Marine Corps and Navy. In each one of those quadrants, there is a uniformed person in the lead, and the Secretary as my role is really to coordinate with all of them, and to work with them in developing policy, issuing policy guidance, tracking progress, establishing strategies, and establishing budgets.

RR: How proactive is your department on these initiatives? Are you out knocking on doors if you see a news story, or are you waiting for companies to come to you in general?

TH: We are doing a little bit of both. We do have a lot of companies coming to us with a whole variety of possibilities; some of which I have never heard of but that are interesting nonetheless. But we are also very active. Prior to my arrival in February, a number of folks from the Assistant Secretary’s office went out to Silicon Valley to really engage with venture capital firms to understand what they are looking at in terms of energy use; what they think are going to be the big winners and where are they putting their money; but also to communicate our goals as well, so they understood where we are going.

Since coming on-board in March, I have gone up to Boston to undertake a similar effort; to meet with venture capital firms out of the Boston area to go through the same process of understanding what they are working on; what technologies and then give them a sense of what our general interest was. That’s one area. We are also looking for small green tech, clean tech companies; so we have talked to a number of them and one of the things we have done recently – and the Secretary announced this last week – is we have released off of our acquisitions website a tool called Green Biz Opps and what this does is really screens through all of the innumerable acquisition opportunities that are on Fed Biz Opps and screens them down to just Navy, energy, and green; and sustainable type of acquisitions. So we list that up on our website and will be updating it on a weekly basis so that companies can come to us; small ones that might not otherwise have the resources; gives them the opportunity to see what kind of opportunities the Navy has. We are also engaged with a number of federal agencies; USDA, DOE, and most recently with the Small Business Administration where we are going to partner together to see how we can get more of these opportunities to these small, green tech, clean tech companies.

Beyond that, we have many of our traditional roads; Navy avenues, whether it is our SBIR program or our STTR program where we can go and get some small businesses that are focused on technologies that are of interest to the Navy. So those continue as well.

RR: When you are talking about opportunities and acquisitions; acquisitions by who? Let’s say you see a promising company, and it passes through your filter, you would acquire that company?

TH: No. The acquisitions are just the opportunities; or procurements; maybe that’s a better way to say it. Procurement opportunities that they have. We don’t acquire other companies.

RR: I wouldn’t have thought so.

TH: These are opportunities that they have, that the Navy is offering them a chance to respond to.

RR: I think that covers all of the questions I have. Will you be available for followups?

TH: Sure. And I would just close by saying that energy security is really critical to our mission’s success. As we look at energy efficiency, we look at that as increasing our mission effectiveness. As we have talked a lot about today, alternative fuels really give the Navy a chance to divest a bit from petroleum to provide some increased insulation from a pretty volatile petroleum market. So that’s a pretty big part of why we are going about this. I just appreciate your time.

(Links to: Part I, Part II, Part III)