The Great Green Fleet

With Libya plunging further into civil war and with gas prices spiking, some Republicans think now is the right time to attack renewable energy again.

Gov. Haley Barbour says the President’s preference for renewables is “deliberately” driving up oil prices. He also claims the oil catastrophe that hit his Mississippi coast last year was just an accident, an aberration. It couldn’t happen again.

You really want to go there?

Thus there is a distinct threat that this industry, and its future, could become the center of the 2012 election. That would be sad, and not just for those Republicans who are in this industry. Being the center of political debate is just bad for business.

To this the Administration is offering what looks like a brilliant piece of political jiu jitsu: The Great Green Fleet.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus recently signed an agreement with the Department of Energy that aims to boost renewable energy production and improve energy storage. (This is, of course, one of many agreements signed over the years, signaling a strong interest in clean energy in the military.)

What makes this brilliant politics, not just a military tactic, is that renewable energy is being explicitly connected to the saving of not just dollars, but the lives of our heroes. And the military is putting money where its mouth is.

For now, it’s not much money. Just $50 million in the coming year’s budget is in the Navy-Energy agreement. But politics is as much about image as substance, and there’s more substance. The Navy has also ordered 40,000 gallons of jet fuel derived from a plant like canola, and over 20,000 gallons of diesel-like fuel from algae.

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had the best line about all this at this week’s ARPA-e conference.

“Why should a dried up little country with a crazy dictator like Libya play havoc with America’s energy future?”

The plain fact is, even if Haley Barbour is right, that we’re the Saudi Arabia of coal, that drilling is perfectly safe, even that global warming is a crock, whatever oil we capture goes into one world market. It helps maintain our dependence on the stuff, which keeps us tied to crazy dictators through the market. And what happens if the present unrest reaches Saudi Arabia, if the people there start asking for the democratic rights enjoyed by (say) Mississippi Republicans?

Oil is fungible. That’s its advantage. But it can also become its disadvantage.

Some of this will be played out in the Republican Congress this year, as ARPA-e is being targeted. But now we have industry groups like the American Energy Innovation Council, making the case.

And they will surrounded by men in uniform, saying “this is our national security we’re talking about.”

Whose side are you on, Gov. Barbour. Ours or Gaddafi’s?

An unfair question I know, but politics ain’t beanbag.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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