Armed with Algae
The US Navy has embarked on an ambitious plan to deploy a fleet of warships powered by alternative fuels by 2016, deemed the 'Great Green Fleet.' The initiative has been touted as one of the most effective moves to jumpstart the use of renewable energy in the US military and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, which would, in turn, have similar effects on the larger economy.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) is the largest oil consuming government body in the world, with the Navy accounting for roughly 1.2 billion gallons of fuel consumption annually at a cost of about $5 billion. With the extreme volatility of oil, costs could easily fluctuate by a billion dollars.
“We are too dependent on either potentially or actually volatile places on earth to get our energy,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in an interview with Renewable Energy World. “Now we’re susceptible to supply shocks and even if we’ve got enough, we’re susceptible to price shocks... when the Libya situation started and the price of oil went up $40 a barrel, that was almost a billion dollars additional fuel bill for the U.S. Navy.”
Newt Gingrich may poke fun at algae-based biofuels, but it's something the US military takes very seriously. Along with the Air Force and Army, the Navy has tested and certified a number of ships and warplanes as biofuel compatible to run on a drop-in blend of conventional oil and green fuel that does not require engine modifications. With over $500 million invested in the biofuels industry, the Navy hopes to cut its use of fossil fuels in half over the next decade.
Although it would serve as a huge win for the companies involved, meeting the military's requirements is not easy. The fuel has to be chemically indistinguishable from conventional jet fuel, must be produced domestically and distributed regionally (to avoid consuming more energy transporting the fuel), must meet market price, can't displace food stocks or drive food prices and can't burn more carbon than petroleum. If scientists can develop fuels in mass quantities for the military, however, the possibility of employing those technologies in the civilian world could act as the catalyst the industry needed in order to finally become a commercial reality.
Signs of success are already surfacing. In November, in the largest alternative fuel test in history, the Navy's first biofuel-powered ship completed a trip along California's coast, running on a 50-50 mix of petroleum and algae-based fuel produced from Solazyme. The fuel burned just like traditional fuel, using the same engines. Later, in March, the Navy's USS Ford sailed over 12,000 miles on the fuel from Washington to San Diego, portraying similar results.
Other companies are working on a wide range of alternative fuel options in the competition to win supplier bids with the DoD's largest oil consumer. Besides San Francisco-based Solazyme, Dynamic Fuels is also one of the biggest players in the program. The Louisiana-based company sources its fuel from used cooking oil and non-food grade animal fats.
If the Navy is able to deploy the fleet by 2016, it will be able to fill up on biofuels at home, but with a globally deployed force, access to the fuel overseas is a whole other issue. The Great Green Fleet will serve as a valuable tool for raising awareness with US allies, but leaders in the Navy, including Navy Cmdr. James Goudreau and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Tom Hicks, have also begun an international outreach campaign to encourage other nations to go down a similar energy path.
In the big picture, these challenges are minor inconveniences. “Alternative fuels are used like any other fuel,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, a defense business consultant at Deloitte LLP, to National Defense Magazine. “You can go to any port and get diesel fuel from petroleum or biomass... The whole fleet doesn’t leave the U.S. all the time. None of these are absolutes.”
As for the biofuel producers themselves, the greatest challenge is the same as it always has been across the industry—scaling up to mass production. The program is being viewed from a global perspective, meaning it will involve managing risk during the transition as the rest of the world catches up.
Despite some backlash from Washington, the Navy continues to steadfastly pursue the initiative, insisting that the nation rises above partisan politics in an effort to strengthen the operations of its armed forces. It's not about right vs left, the environment vs big oil; it's about giving our armed forces the tools they need to protect America.
“Alternative fuels for the Navy is not about being green, it’s about combat capability,” said Goudreau at a recent conference in D.C.
“The department over the six-year defense program will be purchasing $52 billion worth of petroleum and it's absolutely essential to our military operations” Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, told National Defense Magazine. “We are not anti-fossil fuel. We can't operate without it. Ninety percent of our investment over that time in energy initiatives in the operational space is to reduce our consumption of fuel so that we have tactical benefits for it.”
All politics aside, Mabus has stressed that the adoption of renewable energy and alternative fuels is not about reducing carbon emissions, but about improving naval preparedness.
“We’re moving away from it for one reason, that is it makes us better war fighters,” Mabus said in an interview, adding how the US Navy has always played a critical role in the course of energy throughout history:
“In the 1850s, we went from sail to coal. In the early part of the 20th century, we went from coal to oil. In the 50s, we pioneered nuclear. We were the first service, first people to ever use nuclear power for transportation. And now, we’re changing it again. And every single time, from the 1850s to today, you’ve got nay sayers, they say you’re trading one form of energy that you know about, that’s predictable, that’s affordable for another that’s not and you just shouldn’t do it. And every single time, they’ve been wrong and I’m absolutely confident they’re going to be wrong again."
U.S. Navy is applauded for leading the way in biofuels and clean energy:
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere