January 6th, 2014
Secretary, U.S. Navy
The U.S. Department of Defense is the biggest user of fossil fuels in the world, and the Navy uses about one third of it. But with heavy consumption comes heavy influence.
Unlike many corporate executives hung up on the short-term costs of low-carbon energy, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has committed to obtaining at least 50 percent of energy for the Navy and Marine Corps from alternative sources by 2020.
“It's going to be very competitive with fossil fuels,” Mabus said. “In fact, we're not going to do it unless it is competitive with fossil fuels.”
While the main objective for incorporating alternative sources is to fulfill its military mission, Mabus was proud to be a frontrunner in the move toward a clean-energy economy.
“What we do is, we bring a market,” Mabus said.
Oil is the ultimate global commodity, and the shrinking military budget makes alternative sources of energy imperative today, he said.
“Now is exactly the time that we have to do this,” Mabus said. “A tightening budget situation makes it even more urgent, even more critical that we do this."
Mabus spoke about how the Navy historically switched from sail to coal, coal to oil, and pioneered nuclear, and “every single time, there were naysayers.”
“It’s one of our core competencies: Changing energy,” he said.
People who join the Navy or Marine Corps have this willingness to change, and it’s part of the spirit of innovation, Mabus said. When asked about what other countries’ navies around the world are doing in terms of alternative energy, Mabus said they are all watching the U.S. very closely to see how we do.
“Saudi Arabia is one of the largest spenders on alternative energy in the world,” Mabus said. “That ought to tell you something.”
Aside from the economic implications of alternative fuels, many American lives are lost in fuel or water convoys overseas. “We’re talking about saving Marine lives, doing this,” Mabus said.
He spoke about other technological innovations, such as a solar blanket given to Marines that produces energy where they use it, which can save lives – when you turn off a generator, all of sudden you can hear when somebody’s sneaking up on you. The Navy also has a patent to create fuel by combining organic matter and seawater, he said.
“I’m very proud that we are trying to be a good steward of the environment, but the main reason we’re doing it is because of our main job, and that is to be a great military force and to protect this country.”
The Navy is very aware of climate change and sea level rise – many people live within a short distance of the shore and sea level rise can trigger instability around the world.
“Our responsibilities, our jobs, become bigger because of sea level rise,” Mabus said. He discussed his visits to vulnerable countries in the Pacific and “the concern there is palpable.”
“This can happen anywhere, and it’s personal,” he said. “It’s something that we disregard at our peril.”
An ice-free Arctic also presents new military challenges, with countries competing for previously inaccessible minerals and the possibility of oil spills or other ecological disasters. The U.S. Navy protects sea-lanes around the world and “you can make a pretty good argument that one of the main reasons Asia is rising is the United States Navy,” according to Mabus.
“We don’t pick and choose what we protect right now,” he said. “We protect the world.”
During the audience Q&A, Mabus was asked about political resistance to incorporating biofuels into the Great Green Fleet.
"I have been sort of honored by the push back," said Mabus on the move to biofuels. "What it says to me is that what we're doing is working."
When a service member asked for advice about how sailors can personally keep the Navy green and sustainable, Mabus responded: “Keep being willing to change.”
“The conventional wisdom is almost always behind the curve – and keep questioning it.”
- Danielle Torrent
January 6, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California