McCain sees another Solyndra in Navy biofuels spending

The Navys push to develop biofuels to run its fleet of planes and warships could devolve into a Solyndra situation for the Pentagon, a top Republican senator said today.

During Tuesdays hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) compared the now-bankrupt solar energy company, into which the White House sank $535 million in loan guarantees, to Navy-led efforts in alternative energy.

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McCain hammered away at Navy Secretary Ray Mabus during the hearing over the Navys continued investment in biofuel technology.

The Navy has spent more than $400 per gallon for roughly 20,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel for testing, McCain said.

That kind of substantial investment in green fuels, especially during a time of shrinking defense budgets, is simply unacceptable, he said.

Given the Navys recent track record in its alternative fuels program, McCain said, maybe [this] will be another Solyndra situation.

McCain told Mabus and committee members that he plans to introduce amendments to the Pentagons fiscal 2013 budget to address the Navys alternative energy plans.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said he could not comment on what those proposed amendments might include, noting that floor debate on the defense bill for fiscal 2013 is months away.

In response to McCain’s comments, Mabus argued that investment in alternative energy sources is key to relieving the Navy's dependance on foreign oil.

 "I think that we cannot afford not to do this," Mabus told the committee. "We cannot afford to be dependent on a worldwide commodity that has the price spikes and the price shocks that we have." Further, the Navy's operations accounts will likely suffer as the service continues to deal with the constantly changing price of foreign oil, Mabus pointed out. 

That said, the Navy would never purchase any kind of alternative fuel at $400 per gallon, according to the service secretary. The Navy would only start buying biofuels en masse if alternative energy firms could provide that fuel at a commercially competitive price, Mabus said.

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) pointed out that even at a competitive price, the Navy’s plan to use a 50/50 blend of diesel fuel and a biofuel supplement would still cost $15 per gallon. Traditional JP-5 jet fuel used in the Navy’s fighter aircraft runs $4 to $5 per gallon on average, Inhofe said.

This is the second time this year that Republican lawmakers have lambasted the Navy’s alternative energy goals.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, took Mabus to task in February over the service’s plans.

Shouldn’t we refocus our priorities and make those things our priorities instead of advancing a biofuels market? Forbes asked at the time.

Before Mabus could respond, the Virginia Republican took a clear shot at the secretary: You’re not the secretary of the Energy. You’re the secretary of the Navy.

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