Not only will atomic power be released, but someday we will harness the rise and fall of the tides and imprison the rays of the sun. Thomas A. Edison

Friday, October 29, 2010

The U.S. Navy and Biofuels – Part II

The following is a continuation of an interview between Robert Rapier and Thomas Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy). The original article may be found at

In Part I of my recent interview with Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy), we covered the nature of what the Navy is trying to achieve (and why) with respect to incorporating renewable energy into their operations. Part II begins with a discussion of why coal-to-liquids (CTL) is presently off-limits, and why GTL may be as well. Incidentally, I mention Shell’s Bintulu GTL facility in Malaysia below. I have just spent my entire morning inside their facility, and will have a report up on that visit next week.


RR: When I look around the world at synthetic fuel facilities, the only ones that are proven to be able to run at tens of thousands of barrels per day are the coal-to-liquids (CTL) or gas-to-liquids (GTL) plants. South Africa is running CTL at that scale; Sasol’s Secunda facility produces 160,000 bbl/day. GTL may get there; I think Shell’s Bintulu facility is at 15,000 barrels per day and their Pearl GTL project in Qatar is planned for 140,000 bbl/day. So we know that those can operate a large scale, but they are obviously not ‘green.’ So what’s your view on those? Are you open to working with CTL?

TH: Without addressing that specifically, let me give you something that is a federal requirement. As we look to replace petroleum; fossil fuels, from our usage, I think it’s within EISA 2007 (Energy Independence and Security Act) is a provision called Section 526. What it says in general is that any petroleum fuel that we replace with an alternative fuel, must have equal to or lower overall greenhouse gas emissions. Generally speaking, CTL falls on the wrong side of that. There are some notions that CTL combined with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – that may have some promise. But we haven’t built any CCS sites in this country, so at this point it is probably more theoretical until those get built. That’s a guidepost for us; we have to comply with it. We can’t arbitrarily decide what’s green and what’s not. So meeting Section 526 is on the forefront of our minds. And just to be clear, it is DLA Energy that is required to meet it; it is their burden to bear.

SA: That would seem to conflict a bit with a statement (see here) I read the other day from the Chief of Naval Operations, who said “It’s more than simply how green we can be seen; it really is an operational issue for us…. The Green Hornet and the path to a green fleet are not public relation gimmicks.” So I am just wondering, why is it the Navy’s responsibility in reducing their dependence on petroleum – which is obviously an operational issue; a strategic issue; why do they at the same time have to ensure that they are becoming green? I am all for it, but I just wonder if they have something like CTL that can reduce our dependence on foreign oil – why wouldn’t they be able to go for that?

TH: It’s not a choice. This is a federal requirement that we have that we meet Section 526. And CTL as they are currently being delivered; my understanding is that they don’t fall on the right side of the line in terms of being equal to or less in terms of their overall greenhouse gas emissions. That’s it primarily, but there are also issues of wanting to be good environmental stewards and have or created unintended consequences by solving one problem and creating another.

SA: So basically you are saying that it is an outside requirement, where the Navy’s main focus is to reduce their petroleum usage, but obviously they are bound by federal law requirements that may prohibit them from reducing it in certain cases where it won’t be seen as becoming greener, as is the case with CTL.

TH: The objective in this, we don’t want to replace a fossil fuel with another fuel that has worse environmental attributes. Okay? Period. Fortunately, that’s what Section 526 tells us, but it’s what we believe as well; it’s the right thing to do. That’s not a direct comment on CTL, we are hearing of applications where CTL with other technologies can get across that threshold, and thus they would be viable considerations for DLA to purchase.

RR: In my position as CTO, I hear pitches from people every week. Some are credible, some are half-baked, and some violate the laws of physics. So I spend a lot of time on due diligence. I would imagine that you get many more; people must be knocking on your door all the time. How do you filter out the credible from the non-credible? I think Solazyme had an interesting story; they said they were able to deliver a barrel of fuel for you to test. Is that the metric; tell people to go produce some fuel and then you will talk to them?

TH: Well, I think that one worked in that case. For me, there is a range of things. We do get a fair amount. Fortunately, we have the federal procurement process that talks about how we go about doing these types of engagements. So we can’t get too far along. But in terms of just evaluating them, if it’s an area I am not quite sure of, I will send it over to our Office of Naval Research (ONR) and have them take a look at it. They may have already looked at it in the past, they may be working on it with another company, or it may be something they have looked at and said “it’s just not going to work for the Navy.” I usually rely on the ONR quite a bit, especially on some of the newer technologies that aren’t common in the public domain.

RR: Is your budget that is devoted to biofuel development public information? Is that something you can share?

TH: It is, it is in the president’s budget, PB11, but honestly I couldn’t tell you what that number is off the top of my head. We have some people who could. Obviously the FY12 budget is before Congress and is pre-decisional at this point, so there is no point in commenting on that. I can say this; what’s in FY11 budget, and what’s proposed for FY12 and beyond supports the testing and certification program and will support the sailing of the Great Green Fleet and local ops in 2012 and the deployment in 2016. So that’s all programmed in. Again, that’s all pre-decisional and hasn’t been approved, but as planned those things are covered.

RR: If you look at the prices that have been paid, clearly much higher than fossil prices. Solazyme’s CEO clarified that some of that was for R&D. I don’t know about the camelina deal; it looked to be $67.50 a gallon there. Maybe that’s because nobody is really producing camelina; I don’t know. But what is your long-term view on biofuel prices? Do you expect them to become competitive with current oil prices (presently $80/bbl)?

TH: Well, I think they have to get competitive with oil prices. I would choose not to use the word current, because today we are looking at $2.85 a gallon, and what did we pay three years ago? It’s very cyclical; it changes frequently, but I think long-term it has to be competitive with fuel prices. The quantities we are buying today, there’s R&D that goes into that, there’s a lot of testing and certification that we are buying, and these are very small batches. We purchase as the Navy roughly 32 million barrels of fuel per year, so that’s 1.2 or 1.3 billion gallons of fuel, and the quantities you are talking about here are pretty small; 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 gallons, which is pretty small relative to that. And to an extent, you pay for that lack of economy of scale at this point. But again, it’s working toward a testing and certification program, we’re not purchasing those fuels for operational use. I think that’s a really important thing to consider.

RR: So those products they are delivering, those are finished products? For instance, they are doing the hydrocracking and refining to turn them into JP-5, for instance?

TH: I believe that what we get is the mix; the 50:50 blend; 50% algae-based or camelina-based plus JP-5 or F-76 as the case may be.

RR: Besides algae and camelina, which have been pretty public, are there other oil-based crops that you are looking at that people have been able to supply for testing?

TH: I will probably have to defer to someone down at our testing facility to tell you which ones they are looking at. But I know from a feedstock point of view – and I don’t know if these discussions have resulted in us testing the fuel – but there are discussions around jatropha, around bagasse, maybe some sugarcane and some others that seem to have the right environmental attributes. And again, going to the Section 526 compliance piece would be a big part of that.

RR: When you mention bagasse, I presume you are talking about producing ethanol? I guess you could go gasification and produce Fischer-Tropsch liquids. But are you also looking at gasoline replacements, or are you strictly looking for diesel and jet replacements?

TH: Are you talking specifically for our commercial vehicle fleet?

RR: Yes.

TH: So there we have about 50,000 vehicles in our fleet and we have a churn rate of about 10,000 vehicles per year; we buy and lease all of our vehicles through GSA (General Services Administration) and we return about 10,000 per year back to them. As of today, 35% of the fleet is alternative fuel-capable; so they can take B20, E85; it varies obviously by vehicle type. We have CNG, we have a number of all-electric vehicles that we are pilot-testing; even some hydrogen ones as well. And certainly we have flex-fuel and hybrid electrics, and so we have a wide range of different ones. Our goals there are to reduce our petroleum usage by 50% by 2015. From 2003 to 2009 we reduced it by over 30%, and so we are going to go another 50% beyond that. And we are going to do it by purchasing and leasing alternative fuel vehicles through GSA.

RR: So those vehicles you mentioned, do CNG and hydrogen meet Section 526? I think CNG would have a lower greenhouse gas footprint, but I am not sure hydrogen would in its current configuration where it is produced mostly from natural gas.

TH: In a pilot effort, it is more about testing the capabilities of it. Longer term, we still have to go through the compliance path to make sure the overall environmental attributes of that fuel is better tha the fuel it is replacing. With hydrogen, it depends on how you make it. That can obviously play into that.


Part III, the concluding installment, will pick up by discussing the advantages of using fuel produced near the point of use. One statistic that was provided was that for every 24 fuel convoys that we bring into the theater, there is one casualty.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The U.S. Navy and Biofuels – Part I

Sailors assigned to Riverine Group 1 conduct maneuvers aboard Riverine Command Boat (Experimental) (RCB-X) at Naval Station Norfolk. The RCB-X is powered by an alternative fuel blend of 50 percent algae-based and 50 percent NATO F-76 fuels to support the secretary of the Navy's efforts to reduce total energy consumption on naval ships. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gregory N. Juday)

The following is an interview with Assistant Secretary of the Navy for for Energy, Thomas W. Hicks and Robert Rapier as posted today on Consumer Energy Report:

The U.S. Navy and Biofuels – Part I
Posted by Robert Rapier on Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Tuesday, October 19, 2010 I conducted an interview with Tom Hicks, who is the Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Navy (Energy). The idea for the interview originated from my recent essays on Solazyme (here and here) in which the Navy’s investments in biofuels were discussed. After the Solazyme essays were published, Consumer Energy Report editor Sam Avro contacted the Navy for comment, and they offered to set up an interview with Mr. Hicks.

I was joined by Sam, and our questions below will be denoted as “RR” or “SA”. Mr. Hick’s responses are “TH”. The goal of the interview was simply to distill down for a general audience what the Navy is trying to accomplish. The interview went on for over 40 minutes, so it will be broken down into multiple parts.

RR: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? What brought you to this job?

TH: Shortly after college I began working for the Navy as a civilian. I started the energy program for what was then Navy Public Works Center – Washington. That was really doing energy efficiency efforts in the tens of millions of dollars throughout the region. That was kind of early 90’s. From there I went to the EPA, where I created Energy Star for Buildings. Instead of Energy Star for Computers and many other things that you are probably familiar with – I created the application for buildings while there. I implemented that and ran it for a number of years and then went on to the U.S. Green Building Council, where among other things I headed up the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for a couple of years, and I also started and ran the international program there as well. From there, this opportunity came back, and it was a way for me to in many ways come home, back to Navy, and kind of apply both my energy and green building roots to what the Navy’s aspirations were.

RR: In talking to people, I think a lot of people don’t really understand the relationship between the Navy and the companies you work with. For example, are you doing your own research, or only funding outside research? So what exactly is your scope, particularly as it relates to biofuels?

TH: As you probably know, the Navy, as with the Army and Air Force – we purchase our fuel through what used to be called DESC (Defense Energy Support Center) and is now DLA – Energy (Defense Logistics Agency). So we all purchase our fuel from them to power the fleet. For us it’s mostly JP-5 and F-76 and a little bit of JP-8 through DLA Energy. In terms of research, what we are doing – and this stems from the Secretary’s vision and goals that he laid out in October 2009. What he laid out was what the Navy is going to do going forward in the future. There are goals about energy efficient acquisitions, but the two that are the most relevant here are sailing the “Great Green Fleet” which is an idea that hearkens back to the “Great White Fleet” around the turn of the last century that Teddy Roosevelt sailed; this idea that in 2012 we will put a carrier strike group in local operations entirely on alternative fuels and then in 2016 we are going to deploy that strike group on all alternative fuels. So that’s one marker. The other is that by 2020, 50% of all of the Navy’s energy consumption will come from alternative sources. Those are the kinds of guideposts, the vision that we are working toward. In terms of the research, what we are doing today is doing the research, testing, and certification on all the engines in our inventory. That includes all of our surface vessels, as well as all of our aircraft, and testing them to use a 50:50 blend of biofuels, and whatever the case may be; JP-5, JP-8, or F-76.

RR: So you are testing fuels, but not actually trying to produce any yourselves?

TH: No, that’s really not our role to play in this market. There are many other entities that are in that space, and we are looking to utilize those fuels in the blends I mentioned before.

RR: Thanks, that helps clarify one point. So, what are the primary drivers for this, and what is driving the timelines? Is this coming from policy, where they are saying “We really need this”, or from scientists saying “We can do this?”

TH: I think what’s driving it for us is that we see it as enhancing our war-fighting capabilities. It is about becoming more energy independent, more energy secure, and playing what we consider a leading role, not only in the Department of Defense, but in the Federal Government in seeing the realization of an energy efficient economy. That’s what’s really driving us, and that’s consistent with the President’s objectives for the Federal Government, and we see ourselves playing a leading role in that. Having more homegrown, secure, independent sources of fuel is going to be critical to us to be able to complete our mission going forward.

RR: The U.S. Joint Forces released a report earlier in the year (see this story) that warned of the potential for a 10 million barrel a day shortfall by 2015. I am wondering about your opinion on that. Oil supplies, short and long-term; do you think that’s going to be an issue?

TH: I am not an expert in those areas. I can probably point you to some people who are. I was at a conference yesterday, and I understand we currently have about a 500,000 barrel per day surplus, which is pretty tight, but I can’t really comment on that. But of course as we pursue this effort, what we are looking to do is to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. By going for these alternative fuels and biofuels, we can find more independent, secure sources.

SA: Sam here. If I could go back to the original question posed by Robert, where he asked what is driving the changeover towards alternative fuels and greener energy; is it more of a policy thing, which you explained to us and obviously we understand the importance from a security aspect, and about that no one is going to argue about, but I think Robert’s question was more about whether it was wishful thinking. More like “We would love to be in a position to be less reliant on crude oil and the sources we are getting the crude oil from” – or is it the scientists telling you “This is something we can do?” So the question is really, “Is this something we can do, or something we hope we can do?”

TH: Certainly from a technical perspective, as we are proving out through our testing and certification program, the fuel works just as well as other fuels. The blend, the fuel; is transparent to the operator. These are drop-in, so from that perspective it works. So I am not sure if that answers your question from a scientific perspective.

RR: I think the question is, “Can they deliver?” I agree with you that these are drop-in fuels (we are specifically talking about synthetic fuel replacements, not biodiesel or ethanol), as I have seen lots of testing on them. But are the companies realistic about the timelines in which they can deliver?

TH: Well, I think that’s one of the key things we are sending out is a demand signal to the market. So what we are saying is that by 2012, to test the fleet and do the local ops that I mentioned with the Great Green Fleet, we need 8,000 barrels of biofuel. To deploy that in 2016, we need 80,000 barrels. Those are certainly quantities that – we have talked to industry – and they will have no problem with delivering. By 2020, we go from 8,000 to 80,000 to 8 million barrels, is what our need is to meet that goal of 50% alternative fuel. So if we were to sit passively back and not send out the demand signal, perhaps we would have a different outcome. We choose a leadership position, and part of that position is sending out a strong demand signal to the market, that if you can deliver this; if you establish this; if you can meet it at a competitive cost long-term, then this is something we are going to commit to. So again, we are going through the entire certification and testing of every engine in our fleet, including the diesel back-up generators on our carriers.

SA: I just want to clarify one point. So you are telling me, obviously I understand your strategy for getting there, but you are confident that this strategy will take you to a point, where I have seen the Secretary of the Navy say that they want to be sure that 50% of total energy consumption will come from alternative energy sources by 2020, and reducing the use of petroleum by 50% in the commercial fleet by 2015; so you think those are viable goals?

TH: Those are viable goals, and those are goals that are driving our strategies, and driving our budget to make those goals a reality. And again, it’s not just the Navy; we send I think an important demand signal, but if you look at us relative to commercial aviation we are very small, but at the same time I think we represent a very powerful part; and we are also doing this through partnerships with others; whether it’s USDA in trying to create a vibrant biofuel market in Hawaii, or it’s working with DLA Energy to make sure they understand what our needs are, and when we will have those; it’s also working with DOE, through their loan guarantee program and other investment programs into biofuels; we are working all those groups to really make sure that a market takes off on biofuels. We are doing everything within our control to do that.


The next installment will begin by discussing the reasons that the Navy can’t use fuel produced from coal.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TCC Renewable Energy In The News

My course (ENE 100) is but a part of a larger Renewable Energy program at Tidewater Community College. Professor Thomas Stout, head of TCC's Electromechanical Control Technology Program, has taken the lead in providing a pathway to certification in various forms of energy installation and repair. As this part of TCC grows, so does the availability of skilled workers for emerging markets such as wind, solar, and geo-thermal technology.

WVEC (TV Ch. 13 in Hampton Roads, VA) reported on TCC's variety of courses in this emerging field. Click on the link above to be taken directly to WVEC's article and video report.