Could the US navy drive a switch to algae power?

If you want to drive a change in the wider energy mix, start with the navy. That was the case when Winston Churchill helped spur a boom in oil demand by switching the British navy from coal to oil. Now the US navy may be about to do the same with algae.

The Guardian reports today that the US navy has just carried out its first successful test on a boat powered 50 per cent by diesel and 50 per cent by algae.

According to the paper:

The tests, conducted on Friday, are part of a broader drive within the navy to run 50% of its fleet on a mix of renewable fuels and nuclear power by 2020. The navy currently meets about 16% of its energy and fuel needs from nuclear power, with the rest from conventional sources.

The navy plans to roll out its first green strike force, a group of about 10 ships, submarines and planes running on a mix of biofuels and nuclear power, in 2012, with deployment in the field scheduled for 2016.

If it can work technically, it makes economic sense. A $10 rise in the price of petrol costs the whole military an estimated $600m a year. And with the military’s own forceasts suggesting surplus oil production could disappear as early as 2012, it is not surprising that the navy has decided to act.

I wouldn’t hold your breath for this to be the first move in a global switch to biofuels. The military itself says: “Biofuels are unlikely to contribute more than 1% of global energy requirements by the 2030s.”

But as for the navy’s potentially historic test? According to a navy spokesman:

It ran just fine.

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