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The Great Green (Pierside?) Fleet

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Proceedings, July 2012

On 14 October 2011, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus shared his vision of the “Great Green Fleet” at the Naval Energy Forum in McLean, Virginia. The Honorable Mr. Mabus remarked that “in the drive for energy reform the goal has got to be increased warfighting capability.” Increased warfighting capability through energy reform? Is this really possible under the secretary’s timeline of the next ten years, or will warfighters be left with another constraint on their way into the combat zone?

Secretary Mabus effectively communicated how energy reform in the Department of Defense could immediately reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. But at what cost? For many in the armed services, “energy efficiency” might conjure images of turning down the thermostat, putting on a sweater, and learning to enjoy cold showers. For the surface Navy, an effective way to cut fuel consumption would be to remain pierside. While fighting wars, however, cutting corners and decreasing underway training time can cost lives. Metaphorical sweaters and cold showers decrease the Navy’s capability and do not meet the secretary’s intent.

The important distinction in the secretary’s remarks is that he established himself as a champion of energy efficiency, not conservation. Although military professionals may be masters of doing more with less, energy efficiency on board our warships will instead involve doing the same with less. Or, alternatively, doing more with the same: increased warfighting capability through energy efficiency.

In the past few years Proceedings has published several articles on energy reform, a topic that has gained publicity as our nation’s tremendous appetite for oil and our foreign policy collide. But many ideas, including those featured in this magazine, have extensive lead times, prohibitive up-front costs, and require significant infrastructure changes. Developing alternative fuels and driving reverse-hydrolysis with our shipboard nuclear reactors while in port might lead to energy independence—but all of the secretary’s goals fall within the next ten years. What can be done in the meantime?

The surface Navy’s response to rising fuel costs and budget constraints in Fiscal Year 2009 was to drastically curtail underway steaming days at the cost of unit-level training. These restrictions spilled into FY 10, and commanding officers can now anticipate only a handful of underway days each quarter to train their crews for combat readiness. The secretary’s energy goals likely have planners in every numbered fleet wringing their hands and preparing to chop even more underway time from schedules. This hardly meets the intent of increased warfighting capability. This is energy conservation , not efficiency .

Many ships have adapted to the new constraints and have found innovative ways to reduce their fuel consumption. In “Conserving Fuel at Sea,” authors Commander Glenn P. Kuffel and Lieutenant Commanders Barry Palmer and Mary Katey Hays outline several ways the USS Carney (DDG-64) saved significant amounts of fuel by reducing the redundancy of their engineering plant during restricted-waters transits. If risks are effectively mitigated, this can be a practical course of action to save fuel, however, this is another example of energy conservation and certainly cannot be argued to increase warfighting capability. But what other options does the surface Navy have?

Although little known, the results of a study the Department of the Navy commissioned nine years ago could drastically—and immediately—decrease energy use throughout the surface fleet. From December 2000 to January 2001 the Navy chartered a group of scientists from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) to evaluate the potential savings from energy efficiency on board the USS Princeton (CG-59). RMI discovered that the typical at-sea electrical load could be reduced anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent, which could reduce fuel usage by between 10 percent and 25 percent. These savings could bring the surface fleet much of the way toward Secretary Mabus’ energy-reform goals.

RMI’s 129-page report is extremely detailed in terms of both engineering and cost-savings analysis and includes recommendations for retrofitting fire pumps so firemains can remain pressurized without keeping two large pumps online 24 hours a day: “Rework fittings and the control system to maintain fire system pressure with a [variable-speed drive]-equipped lead pump and a backup pump in automatic startup mode, or small jockey pumps instead of the large fire pumps.” 3

Most of the report’s recommendations are retrofits and could be added immediately into the continuous maintenance availabilities of ships throughout the Fleet. For example, RMI’s fluorescent lighting systems retrofits could reduce the number of lamps necessary in a given space by using dimming electronic ballasts and reflectors to increase output per lamp. This retrofit would pay for itself in energy savings in less than one year. These improvements will cut into maintenance budgets but would decrease operational budgets for years to come. This is what Secretary Mabus envisioned when he heralded “lifetime energy costs” to the Naval Energy Forum.

Further, “All of RMI’s recommendations and suggestions aim to increase operational effectiveness, and at a minimum, in no way to reduce combat effectiveness or resilience.” Such language seems prophetic in light of the secretary’s recent vision for the Great Green Fleet: “. . . to lower our reliance on fossil fuels, we need to improve the efficiencies of our systems and develop platforms that operate as a system of systems, are integrated together, and reduce our tactical vulnerability.”

What does efficiency mean, tangibly, for our Navy ships? Since the surface fleet runs on marine diesel fuel, to the surface warfare officer this means more miles traveled for underway training or operational tasking and more electricity delivered to combat suites with fewer underway replenishments. And for our nation, less dependency on foreign oil. This also translates to enormous potential savings in operational budgets and more operational capability. In sum, increased warfighting capability through energy efficiency.

Secretary Mabus issued a challenge for energy reform. The surface Navy can either meet his fuel-savings goals through conservation by remaining pierside to the detriment of its warfighting capability, or it can rise to the occasion through large-scale implementation of energy efficiency retrofitting to become the Great Green Fleet he envisions.


1. See “Get on Board with Alternative Fuels,” Proceedings December 2008; “Weaning the Navy from Foreign Oil,” January 2009; and “Conserving Fuel at Sea,” June 2009.

2. Amory Lovins, Chris Lotspeich, Ron Perkins, Jim Rogers, and Edwin Orrett, “Rocky Mountain Institute Energy Efficiency Survey aboard USS Princeton CG-59,” 30 June 2001, 5.

3. Ibid., 24.

4. Ibid., 103.

5. Ibid., 8.