An Exclusive Interview With Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
Under the aegis of President Barack Obama and the leadership of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus – the U.S. Navy has leaned into clean energy, reducing fossil fuels dramatically.
According to an Energy Accomplishment Highlights report sent to me by the Department of Energy:
· More than 50% (1 GW) of the Department of Navy’s onshore energy is being derived by alternative sources, including hydropower, solar and wind,
· There has been a 60% reduction of fossil fuels in the Marines and 15% in the Navy,
· The Great Green Fleet, which was launched in 2016, is steaming 100% on biofuels and nuclear,
· A fighter jet, which was fueled 100% by biofuel, was successfully tested,
· $90 million has been saved, and
· 22 million tons of CO2 has been abated.
Secretary Mabus, who has the distinction of being the longest serving leader of the Navy and Marine Corps since World War I, is clearly proud of the new energy ethos at the U.S. Navy. He hit President Obama’s vision of 50% onshore renewable energy five years early, in 2015. Secretary Mabus believes the new energy policy has made our Navy stronger. He has also witnessed firsthand the effects of climate change, and reminds us that the U.S. Navy is America’s first responder to climate disasters.
However, President-Elect Donald Trump’s advisors and cabinet, many of whom are climate deniers or “sceptics,” weigh in more heavily on the side of the fossil fuel industry than clean energy. Is all of Mabus’ work at risk of being dismantled by the incoming Administration?
I asked this and more of Secretary Mabus during my exclusive interview with him this morning (January 5, 2017).
Natalie Pace: Why did you push to make the U.S. Navy more energy efficient, powered by renewables and less reliant on fossil fuels?
Secretary Ray Mabus: We did this to be better war fighters. We did this to be a better military. But you also cannot overlook climate change. As the arctic melts, as storms get more intense, the Navy and the Marine Corps are America’s first responders. If we don’t slow the rise of sea levels, our bases are at risk, particularly at Norfolk.
NP: How can clean power and energy efficiency be a military asset?
SRM: Energy can be an edge, or it can be a liability or vulnerability that can be exploited. When I first came into office, oil was at $140/barrel. In my first few years here, I got two billion dollars in unbudgeted fuel price increases. We had to make decisions between operations and training because we couldn’t afford fuel for everything. Perhaps worst of all, we were losing a Marine, killed or wounded, for every 50 convoys of fuel that we took into Afghanistan.
NP: How can energy be a vulnerability?
SRM: We’re global. We’ve got more than 100 ships foreign deployed. We buy fuel out there. We can’t ship it from here. In Singapore, there is an oil refinery owned by the Chinese. Right down the road, there is a biofuel refinery owned by a Finnish company. I don’t want to be dependent upon the Chinese for fueling the U.S. Navy, particularly in the Western Pacific. I want options. That’s what this gives us. Not being dependent on China or the Middle East for fuel is a combat edge.
NP: Relying upon a potentially hostile nation for your energy sounds downright dangerous. Many Americans aren’t aware that when we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re buying oil from the Saudis.
SRM: All you have to do is to see what Russia did to Crimea on energy to see how it can be used as a weapon. Look at what they did to the Ukraine. Look at what they tried to do to Europe before the price of oil went down so much.
Note from Natalie: Click to see a NATO Review analysis of Russia, energy, Crimea and the Ukraine.
NP: What do you say to free market conservatives who criticized you for demonstrating the Great Green Fleet in 2012 with exorbitantly expensive biofuel?
SRM: The last biofuels that we got we paid $1.99/gallon for. They are absolutely price competitive now with fossil fuels. A lot of our allies are moving toward biofuels. The commercial sector is as well. JetBlue just announced a 10-year biofuel purchase. Alaska Air, Virgin Air, Fedex, UPS and United are all beginning to fly on biofuels. At sea, we’re at about 35% alternatives, half of that is nuclear, the other half are biofuels.
NP: How are product innovations working for the Marines and SEALs – those warriors on the front line who have to have reliable communication, water and power?
SRM: We’re beginning to make fuel where we are. We give Marines rollable solar panels. We did this at the height of the fighting in Afghanistan. That saved the company of Marines 700 pounds of batteries. They didn’t have to carry them and they didn’t have to get resupplied. We have SEAL teams that are at net zero in terms of energy and water. They are using solar power to purify water, so they can stay out far longer.
NP: Are electric vehicles part of the strategy?
SRM: We’re building ships with hybrid drives. On its first deployment, the USS Makin Island went out on a normal deployment. It brought back almost half its fuel budget, and it stayed at sea 44 days longer than any other ship it was with that had to go into port to refuel.
NP: With climate skeptics moving into positions of power under the new Administration, are you concerned that the clean energy ethos and gains achieved under your leadership will be scrapped?
SRM: Onshore, it really can’t be reversed. The alternatives, like wind and solar, are off-take, long-term contracts. We’re saving money onshore using alternatives, even with the price of oil as low as it is today.
NP: With a Secretary of State who worked for Exxon Mobil and a Department of Energy secretary from oil-rich Texas, it’s hard to imagine that fossil fuels won’t be on the menu.
SRM: If you want to reverse this, then you need to be honest about it. You’re going to make SEAL teams and Marines far less mobile. You’re going to put Sailor and Marine lives at risk. A Navy ship is the most vulnerable when it is being refueled. That was when the USS Cole was attacked. If that’s what you want to do, then understand that you’ll make us a less effective military force, and you have to explain why you want to do that. Being able to stay out longer and refuel less is a combat edge. You don’t normally think of Marines as tree huggers, but they have led the pack on this, with these small solar panels. They have knee braces that connect to their packs to power their radios. As they walk, run or march, the power that they are generating from their legs is powering their radios. They don’t have to carry batteries any more.
NP: Are you concerned that Renewable Energy Program Office or the Carbon Disclosure Project will be closed down?
SRM: This is so much bigger than Navy or the military. We’re way past the tipping point on alternative energy. The Federal government has limited ability to stop this. 30 states have set energy goals. Regardless of who occupies the White House, regardless of what the policy of the federal government is, alternative energy costs have come down and the benefits are real. Once you have solar panels on your home and you have a battery that can store things at night or over a long period of time, you don’t have to be on the grid at all. The cost of your energy goes down so much. We found that on our bases.
NP: You’ve been around the world over the last nine years. What have you seen that makes you so sure climate change is an urgent concern?
SRM: In March, I went underway on the USS Hampton, a submarine, to the North Pole. We came up right at the North Pole, and the ice was eight inches thick. Normally the ice is several feet thick there.
You are seeing storms at increasing intensity. We’re getting a request for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on average once every two weeks now, to go somewhere to help people. That’s up dramatically.
We put a camp on the ice about two miles off the Alaska coast. The last two Ice Exercises have had to disband very quickly, and a couple of weeks early, because the ice broke up. These ICEX’s have been going on for decades. Suddenly, the ice just isn’t thick enough to support it.
We have already had the first climate refugees in the United States. People are moving off of an island off of the coast of Louisiana because it is submerging.
Natalie’s Note: Click to see a National Geographic article on Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.
NP: Does climate change put our national security at risk in any way?
SRM: You’re already seeing ships use the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic in the summer. Russia has said that the waters to its north are an internal waterway. They’re not. That’s an international waterway. The U.S. Navy, being the only global Navy, would be the one to keep that waterway open, if there’s a dispute there.
Norfolk, Virginia is already experiencing some flooding. It’s not as bad as Miami is.
This is stuff you see. It’s not theoretical. It’s not a scientific guess or theory. You can go out and look at it. You can see the glaciers retreating. You can see the ice not forming or forming differently. Whether you believe in what the cause is or not, the effects are very real and very visible.
NP: So what’s up next for you?
SRM: I’m going to be pretty busy, but there is nothing that I can announce until after the 20th.
You can learn more about the U.S. Navy’s Environmental Program at http://www.nesdi.navy.mil/. You can watch a video of naval and marine officers discussing why “Energy is Vital to National Defense,” on the Navy’s YouTube channel. You can read more about the January 20, 2016 launch of the Great Green Fleet in my Medium blog.
As for Secretary Ray Mabus, it sounds like we haven’t heard the last of him. Stay tuned here for updates.