Critics, he notes, say the Navy’s focus on alternative energy, “is just a fad — that we’re just doing it because it’s politically correct; that it’s never going to happen. But I can tell you, energy security is national security, energy security is independence — and if we don’t accomplish it as a military force, we’re taking a huge risk that is not justified.”

The jump from a good idea that works in the laboratory in small quantities, to one that is commercially scalable and price competitive has been “the valley of death” for biofuels, Mabus says. “That’s what we’re trying to help the industry get across. Making that jump is a very legitimate, very good purpose that we can use the Defense Production Act to facilitate.”

To that end, he says, “Last April, President Obama charged USDA, the Department of Energy, and the Navy to come up with a national, geographically diverse, competitive biofuels industry in the U.S. We’ve developed a plan to each invest $170 million in biofuels.”

The Navy has some ways to make it happen,” Mabus says.

“We have the Defense Production Act Title III, which says if there is an industry that’s needed for national defense … we can invest to make that industry viable. Add to that the USDA, which has the Commodity Credit Corporation, and the Department of Energy, which brings its expertise in emerging markets.”

The Navy itself represents a major market. Quoting a slogan from the movie, “Field of Dreams,” he says of the nascent biofuels industry, “If the Navy comes, they will build it.

“We’ve put out a request for information, which closed a couple of days ago, and we have more than 100 responses from the alternative energy sector, including some that use processes developed right here at Mississippi State University. We’re going to vet these very carefully — there’s got to be at least a one-to-one industry match [of government investment]. The industry will have to stand on its own after that.”

Among requirements for alternate fuels to be used by the military, Mabus says, are that, “First, it has to be drop-in fuel. We already have most of the naval fleet we’re going to have by 2020; we already have most of the aircraft we’re going to have by 2020. The fuel’s got to work in the engines and powerplants we have today.

“Second, it can’t take any land out of food production, and third, it’s got to be price-competitive in the long run.

“There are a lot of smart folks in this room, and around the country, working on alternative fuels. I think they and these three agencies can get industry across the so-called valley of death. “

 In the two plus years he’s been Navy secretary, Mabus says the price of oil has fluctuated from $71 per barrel to $117 per barrel. “In 1997, when I returned from Saudi Arabia, it was $18 per barrel; in 2000 it was $23; in 2005 it was $50; in 2008 it was $96; and the average this year has been $107.”

That kind of volatility, coupled with the potential for supply interruptions in oil producing countries, only adds urgency to the need for alternatives, he says.

There are both strategic and tactical reasons for reducing the military’s dependence on fossil fuels, Mabus notes.

 “One consideration is that Navy ships are at their most vulnerable when they’re refueling. That’s what the USS Cole was doing when it was attacked by terrorists in Yemen.