Cleantech: a question of national security

Last Thursday, Republicans trotted out Energy Secretary Steven Chu before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to answer questions as to whether there was any wrongdoing in the granting of Solyndra’s $535 million loan guarantee. Chu then followed this piece of political theater with some of his own and headed to a GE-owned solar plant in Colorado to argue that U.S. solar companies need government help to avert total defeat from Chinese manufacturers.

It was a political show with very little news, but it’s of concern because the government’s support of cleantech is becoming increasingly political, something of an argument for government spending gone wrong.

I have long thought two things about politics and cleantech:

  1. Cleantech is a question of national security first and the environment or job growth second.
  2. It is a political mistake to sell renewable energy as a jobs solution.

My first point should make cleantech a core Republican issue. The second should inform how Democrats communicate about energy policy. The value of developing an economy not dependent on fossil fuels is ultimately about national security, which means it should be held to a different standard than, say, an economic stimulus package. When the military asks for appropriations to send additional troops to Afghanistan, nobody asks about job creation. It should be the same for cleantech.

When discussing national security and cleantech, it’s helpful to look at what the military is doing, because it is a microcosm of how energy dependence creates security problems. The Department of Defense’s cleantech investment has grown 300 percent, to $1.2 billion, in the past five years, due to concerns about battlefield security risks related to acquiring fuel (one out of eight deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 resulted from protecting fuel convoys).

Estimates show that the cost of a gallon of gas in a combat situation reaches $40 a gallon, and so the military is a heavy investor in biofuels but is also moving toward energy storage, wind and solar as ways to make bases more self-sufficient.

What’s incredible is that everyone accepts that soldiers carry increased risks by being fossil fuel–dependent but don’t always acknowledge that American families carry similar security risks. UCLA geography and physiology professor Jared Diamond examines why societies survive or fail in his book Collapse, and two of the key factors he identifies are overpopulation and energy shortages. They collapse partially because these countries end up expending their dwindling resources to fight competitors for what’s left and partially because resource shortages create political instability. While many have painted the Arab Spring as a unique zeitgeist caused by a people’s desire for democracy, other scholars have shown that the uprisings strongly correlate with rising food prices and food shortages.

The global population hit 7 billion last month amid accelerating urbanization (which increases energy demands), and the UN contends that we will hit 9 billion by 2050. It is naive to believe that resource wars among competing countries will not be a facet of the next 50 years. And they will be fought over resources beyond energy, like phosphorus, which is critical to growing crops and the global agricultural supply.

If this is beginning to sound more like a safety concern for Americans than any environmental ideal or concern about job growth, one can start to see why the military is investing. At some point some brave politician will stand up and argue that to continue to subsidize a declining resource like fossil fuels, which receives six times the amount of help as renewable energy, and not aggressively support cleantech investment, is unpatriotic. That’s because cleantech is a security issue first, and when we politicize it and fail to treat it as such, we start to gamble with our own economic, social and political stability.

Question of the week

Would a Democratic focus on the national security arguments for cleantech resonate with voters?
Relevant Analyst
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Adam Lesser

Cleantech Curator Gigaom Research

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