The future of the Navy, and a baby step toward easing America’s military dependence on oil, chugged out of San Diego Bay on Monday.
Now two years old, the amphibious ship Makin Island departed on its maiden deployment, bound to prove that the Navy’s first hybrid-drive warship — part electric, part gas — can cut it in real-life scenarios.
The fuel savings to date seem impressive. On an average day, the Makin Island uses 15,000 gallons of fuel, versus 35,000 to 40,000 gallons on an older steam ship of its type, said Capt. James Landers, commanding officer.
The ship’s crew and Navy brass are already convinced. The Navy has decided to put the same power plant in the next big-flight-deck amphibious vessel it builds, the America (LHA-6), the first of a new ship class.
It will also retrofit up to 35 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with a hybrid drive, starting as early as 2016 to support the launch of what the secretary of the Navy is calling the “great green fleet.”
These are the first steps toward a more electric Navy. Ship-building officials see the hybrid-drive Makin Island, and the destroyers to come, as what paves the way to warships that run on electricity created by diesel generators.
“Everything that we see in the civilian world is going more electric. We’ve had hybrid-electric cars for awhile, now you are starting to see the all-electric cars come in. That’s where the Navy is going,” said Timothy McCoy, director of the Navy’s electric ships office in Washington, D.C.
“This is a stepping stone,” he said. “The all-electric ship is such a massive change to the design; you can’t backfit it onto an existing ship. It would be cost prohibitive.”
Since 2009, the Navy — the Pentagon’s second-biggest consumer of fossil fuel — has marched toward reducing its reliance on oil.
One reason is the expense of foreign-bought petroleum and the fact that it forces the United States to depend on nations that are sometimes hostile to it. Second, for every 24 fuel convoys in the war zone, one service member is wounded or killed while guarding them, officials have said.
The Navy next year will test a hybrid electric-gas power system in a destroyer, the Norfolk, Va.-based Truxtun.
Betting on a successful outcome, the service is asking manufacturers to submit proposals to build hybrid engines for up to 35 of its 60 destroyers. Navy brass chose destroyers because they account for 40 percent of the Navy’s ship fuel budget.
The Navy has ordered the Lewis and Clark-class T-AKE electric cargo ship, being built in San Diego by General Dynamics NASSCO.
Also, all three ships in the curtailed DDG-1000 class of destroyers will be electric. The first is now under construction in Bath, Maine.
So-called alternative fuels are the other side of the Navy’s petroleum-reduction effort.
This week in San Diego, the Navy plans to try out an algae fuel blend in a decommissioned destroyer. Officials are calling it the largest-ever demonstration of alternative fuels on a ship.
Additionally, the Navy is testing out biofuels in its jets, helicopters and small boats. A 50-50 blend of traditional fuel and mustard seed oil, this “green gas” has performed well so far in testing, according to reports.
By next year, the secretary of the Navy wants to demonstrate that he can assemble a strike group — that’s an aircraft carrier with destroyers, cruisers and submarines sailing in support — running on alternative power sources. By 2016, the Navy hopes to deploy this “green fleet.”
On the Makin Island, the crew has had two years to test out their first-of-its-kind ship, sometimes called the Prius of the Navy.
The result: About 70 percent of the time, they can use the electric motors, saving on gas.
When the ship needs to get from Point A to B quickly, at 12 knots or more, it uses the gas turbines. Once on scene, its work changes.
The job of a big-deck amphibious ship is to launch Marines ashore in small boats and aircraft. While the Marines are on the ground, the ship is usually puttering around in a small space at slow speed — the perfect scenario for the electric motor.
Even though the electricity is provided by diesel generators, that method is still more fuel efficient than gas turbines, McCoy said.
The upside, aside from the fuel savings, is a cleaner, cooler, software-driven engine room — compared with the old steam system — with less mechanical equipment to break and fewer sailors needed to tend it, according to Makin Island crew members.
The downside is a long logistical “tail,” which means it takes awhile to get parts. Also there aren’t too many piers across the world where the Makin Island will be able to plug in, because of the high voltage of its system compared with other warships. Also, the ship is software dependent, so as one crew member put it, you have to worry about what you can’t see that might go wrong in the bits and bytes of data.
Naval author Eric Wertheim said this, like any new technology, has pros and cons.
“They are technically complex, so you are adding more systems that can break down. Like if you get a car that’s more complicated, it’s great, but there are more things that can break down,” said Wertheim, who wrote “Combat Fleets of the World.”
“But the benefits are your energy savings and cost savings in the long term.”
The Makin Island’s chief engineer, Cmdr. Brian Rottnek, said he has become a believer.
“I wasn’t before. I was a born-and-bred gas turbine guy. Then I went to steam ships,” said Rottnek, 50, who started as an enlisted sailor before earning his officer’s bars.
“Then when I saw the hybrid … once we got it perfected, there are no (breakdowns), it doesn’t leak oil. It’s just a start and stop,” he said. “Yeah, the hybrid is the way to go.”
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