The U.S. Navy's high-profile program to draw half of its energy from alternative fuels by 2020 didn't receive much attention during the opening day of the annual Sea-Air-Space conference.
The effort, dubbed the Great Green Fleet and championed by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, didn't headline any of the panels. The topic of energy instead came up during an afternoon session that mostly centered on the Marine Corps' small-scale use of portable solar panels in Afghanistan and during training exercises at stateside posts.
Perhaps the timing of the event is partly to blame. The annual expo, held outside Washington at National Harbor, Md., kicked off two days before the release of President Barack Obama's budget request for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
Lawmakers such as Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., have criticized the initiative to power ships, aircraft and combat vehicles with biodiesel and other alternative fuels as being unnecessarily costly. Fuels derived from algae and other alternative sources remain more expensive than petroleum-based products.
The Defense Department faces $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade under deficit-reduction legislation passed in 2011. Half of that, about $500 billion, will come from automatic, across-the-board cuts — unless Congress and the White House agree to an alternative spending plan.
Despite the downturn in defense spending, the Marine Corps is moving forward with programs such as the Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Network System, known as GREENS, and the Solar Portable Alternative Communication Energy System, or SPACES, designed to power radios and other communications equipment in the war zone, according to Col. Bob Charette, who spoke on the afternoon panel.
"Solar is the best technology for us" because Marines can lay it on the ground and keep a low profile during combat missions, Charette said in an interview afterward. However, it can take as long as 12 hours to recharge batteries for portable radios, he said.
The Marine Corps plans to spend about $350 million over the next five years on developing alternative sources of power, according to Katherine Hantson, an analyst in the Corps' expeditionary energy office.
Mabus is scheduled to speak at the event's luncheon on April 10.