Moving alternative energy forward

DoD says alternative fuel is promising -- but it's expensive. How well can it survive the big crunch?

Last Thursday, the Navy announced that another key piece of the U.S. arsenal — a destroyer (sort of ) — had made its first long transit at sea on alternative fuel.

The self-defense test ship ex-USS Paul F. Foster, the Navy’s last remaining Spruance-class warship, ran for 17 hours up the West Coast on a fuel made half from standard diesel and half from algae biofuel. By all the accounts from Naval Sea Systems Command, the ship’s engines didn’t even notice the difference. Several Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft and vehicles also have done these kinds of early test runs.

The problem, of course, is that alternative fuel is still much more expensive than standard petroleum, in part because DoD is also paying for the costs in developing it. Still, do the many early successes with alternative fuel mean the services have reached a — buzzword apology  — tipping point where their fuel ambitions are a business problem, rather than a science problem?

Yes and no, the military services’ top scientists said. Speaking at last Friday’s Military Reporters and Editors conference, the top S&T bosses for the Departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force said the pure science and chemistry behind alternative fuels probably still has room to improve, and, yes, so does the cost.

Walter Jones, executive director of the Office of Naval Research, said the services can remain “early adopters” as well as large customers for alternative fuel, attacking both the science and cost problems simultaneously.

He and his colleagues agreed the main strategy is simple: The Pentagon just has to start buying lots of alternative fuel, to train its vendors to produce it in bulk and give the best deals per gallon. Service officials today acknowledge alternatives may never be as cheap as petroleum, but if alternatives at least can be competitive, and their prices kept stable, that is a good compromise. If it becomes cheap enough that commercial customers like the airline industry also get on board, so much the better.

This is by now a familiar refrain, and although it sounds reasonable enough, it raises many questions. We’re in post-super committee Austerity America, where Secretary Panetta upends the couch cushions in his office looking for spare change to buy fighter jets. If you were a bean-counting, green-eyeshade type somewhere in the Building and you could either buy 20,000 gallons of standard fuel for $2.80 per gallon or 20,000 gallons of fuel for, let’s say, $10 per gallon — could you justify the alternative high-test stuff?

The Army’s chief scientist, Scott Fish, acknowledged this is a problem. And not only is it a near-term issue for logisticians who need to get fuel today to fly out to an Air Force fighter tomorrow, it’s a problem for acquisitions managers as well, he said. Let’s say the Army is choosing between two engines: a less expensive one with poor fuel economy and a more expensive one with better fuel economy.”

“As we find more and more of these tech solutions that potentially provide payoff in lifecycle energy, we have to ask, ‘What is the right way to pay for this?’ Fish said. “If you talk to the individual who’s performing the acquisition, they are not necessarily incentivized within the current budget system to make that investment and drive additional cost down.”

Service officials have been saying for a long time they want to get better about this, and back during last year’s littoral combat ship battle, supporters of Austal’s LCS 2 design kept hammering about how much more “efficient” they said it was, trying to exploit the Navy’s promise to consider lifecycle costs. (Later the Navy just decided to please everyone by buying both LCS designs anyway.)

If the Pentagon’s ever going to get off this merry-go-round, it’s going to have to bit the bullet someday, hold a press conference, and announce a huge order of alternative fuel, then go right to work defending the cost as a reasonable investment for the long term. The problem is, there’s probably never been a worse time to draw attention to what might sound like a budget extravagance.