The Weekend Australian

by Nigel Pittaway

Sometime in 2016 a fleet of US Navy warships will sail into Sydney Harbour on a goodwill visit in commemoration of the arrival of the "Great White Flea in 1907.

What will be special about this visit is that this fleet, dubbed the "Great Green Fleet", will have travelled across the Pacific powered exclusively by alternative fuel, known as biofuels. Moreover it will then refuel with Australian-produced biofuel for the journey beyond.

This demonstration of sustainable fuel use is planned to further validate the US Navy's requirement to have half its fuel needs met by alternative sources by 2020. The US Departments of Energy and Agriculture, along with the Navy, are investing $500 million to produce advanced biofuels for military and commercial applications.

The Royal Australian Navy is also studying the switch to sustainable fuels and has technical representatives embedded in the US program. While there are strategic reasons for reducing dependency on fossil fuels, there are also compelling environmental arguments to both reduce carbon emissions and provide a sustainable alternative.

Transportation and its reliance on liquid fossil fuels is a major contributor to the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere every year. Because it transports 70 per cent of the world's commodities, shipping is a significant source of carbon emissions, higher than the 2 per cent attributed to aviation.

Demand for maritime transportation is predicted to increase through the foreseeable future, out until at least 2050, by which time the world's population will have reached nine billion people.

A worldwide challenge faced by governments and industry is how to produce biofuels at the same cost, or even cheaper than, petroleum, diesel or kerosene.

One of the key events at this month's Pacific International Maritime Exposition (Pacific 2012) in Sydney will be an international forum on sustainable fuels.

The forum will be chaired by Susan Pond, from the US Studies Centre's Dow Sustainability Program at the University of Sydney. It will cover the Great Green Fleet, green ports, commercial shipping operators' perspectives, Australian and international advanced biofuels industries, strategic partnerships and the capital markets for biofuels projects.

Keynote speakers will include Chris Tindal, the director for operational energy at the US Navy's Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy and Robert Hill, former minister for environment and defence and now head of the Dow Sustainability Program.

"The issues around feasibility are economic rather than technical and the US Navy's lead creates a customer who is initially prepared to pay a premium for biofuels, to enable the cost to come down to at least parity with fossil fuels," Pond says. "New industries do need lights on the hill and it is these economic considerations which will influence the boardrooms around the world.

"We need to also look at how the incumbent oil industry will integrate into the Mattel supply chain and how to develop strategic government and industry partnerships that will drive production to substantial scale. The aim is to produce biofuels with a greater than 50 per cent reduction in life-cycle emissions compared to burning oil."

Pond says Australia has advantages when it comes to the establishment of a sustainable energy industry, given the technological know-how of industry and the agricultural capability to grow crops used in the production of biofuels.

"There's a very timely opportunity for Australia to take up the challenges of developing the sustainable fuel industry," she says.

The Sustainable Fuels seminar will also look at technologies other than liquid fuels, such as electrification and the use of hydrogen fuel cells.

Another seminar to be held at Pacific 2012 is titled, The Sea and the Environment Opportunities, Constraints and Risks, to be run by the Australian Association of Maritime Affairs, in conjunction with Maritime Australia.

It will look at the sea and the environment and provide opportunities to close the perceived gap between marine scientific research and the expectations of industry. Presentations will be made by scientific and industry representatives, including Paul Holthus, executive director of the World Ocean Council and Tony Burke, Federal minister for sustainability, environment, water, population and communities.