By Mark Dodd
Australian companies could benefit from a radical policy switch by the US Navy to wean itself off fossil fuels and tank up instead on renewable energy, a visiting US energy expert says.
Details of the US Navy's alternative fuels strategy were unveiled yesterday at the Pacific 2012 Maritime Conference in Sydney.
One outcome of the new policy which has the backing of US President Barack Obama will see a bio-fuel powered "Great Green Fleet" of US warships heading down under in 2016.
But unlike the Great White Fleet of 1907 coal burners, these US warships will be running on green energy.
The US Navy wants half its fleet powered by sustainable energy by 2020.
Speaking during a conference session on maritime fuels sponsored by the US Studies Centre, Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary, for Energy for the US Department of Navy, told The Australian that annual fuel consumption for the US Navy was 30 million barrels worth US$4 billion (A$3.7b).
However, price volatility affecting Middle-East fuel supplies had prompted a switch to green energy, Mr Hicks said.
Qantas and Virgin Airlines are also closely examining alternative fuel sources for their respective aircraft fleets.
And earlier today, Defence Materiel Minister Kim Carr announced that the RAAF's C-130 fleet would begin a trial program aiming to improve fuel efficiency.
Mr Hicks said altruism was not a factor in seeking clean energy alternatives to power its warships.
"We're not doing this to be cleaner and greener we (US Navy) need to be more effective in the use of our fuels and that provides us a tactical and strategic advantage," he said.
Fuel price volatility affected the navy's ability to maintain its fleet of 285 warships and 3700 aircraft, the energy specialist said. While the US was seeking to tap into a homegrown renewable energy sector, big opportunities existed for American allies including Australia, said Mr Hicks.
Alternative fuel sources currently under examination have been developed from algae, wood and paper waste, and surplus feedstock.
Encouraging results are also being obtained from 'Camelina' a close relative of mustard seed, a plant with a low requirement for water.
It all adds up to a potentially big market for non-US manufacturers, Mr Hicks said.