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For some, green energy IS national, rational defense

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Down around the corner, half a mile from here; Seem them coal trains running, and you watch them disappear.

JULY 16, 2012: Upstate New York Power Corp. wants to erect wind turbines on Galloo Island. ReEnergy Holdings wants to retrofit a coal-fired generator so it can burn biomass. The renewable energy plans may be different, but the companies have one thing in common: they want to sell the energy they produce to Fort Drum.

In reality, what the two companies have most in common is that neither one has a contract to sell anything to anybody, particularly Uncle Sam.

The dance being played out here is part of a nationwide cotillion in which our military is trying to figure out how to go green without going in the red. As tax dollars dry up, cutting costs through efficiency is a no-brainer, although no one expects National Grid to be called to perform an energy audit on a Virginia class nuclear sub.

So what to do?

First, the military's renewable energy movement is already everywhere. In 2007, 70,000 solar panels were installed at Nellis Air Force Base to produce energy. In March the Watertown Daily Times reported that half of all U.S. soldiers, including those at Fort Drum, now carry light-weight solar-powered batteries to fire up all the electronics they carry onto the battlefield.

With the Department of Defense, the debate on directing some tax dollars from defenders and weapons and toward renewable energy generally starts with a simple premise: if we stop buying so much foreign oil, foreign countries won't have so much cash to buy weapons to kill our soldiers or pay others to do it for them.

But the return on any energy technology investment is years away and so the debate is running into roadblocks at the highest pay grades. In March Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reaffirmed the Navy's plan to have half of its energy supplied from non-fossil fuels in the next decade. But during a senate hearing, Sen. John McCain countered, “Using defense dollars to subsidize new energy technologies is not the Navy's responsibility.”

Closer to home, any company wanting to pump power on post will have to get the contract through the national Defense Logistic Agency, and not by buttering up FDRLO and AUSA members to in turn lobby Fort Drum star wearers.

(Sore subject alert: Fort Drum's two one-star billets are being manned by colonels-promotable. It is our hope and prayer that a couple more retirements at the Pentagon will straighten this all out, and the right number of stars will soon be found on post.)

The number crunching regarding the cost of providing long-term power to Fort Drum will be interesting. Right now biomass execs are telling the Army they can generate power for 7 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, due to a warm winter, increased production of natural gas, etc., Fort Drum's energy costs have recently dropped to 4 cents per KWh. That number will rise and fall from year to year, which prompts the question of whether the feds should lock in a higher, fixed price, or stay the course and keep rolling the dice.

People against federally subsidized renewable energy are often most offended by the amount of money thrown at research and production. If a “green” company such as Solyndra goes belly up, the catcalls are deafening. And even the military itself can be the biggest obstacle to somebody else's green energy. If a cash-strapped town government starts fast-tracking a radar-wrecking wind farm within binocular reach of Fort Drum's airfield, a behind-the-scenes “Come to Jesus” meeting will be quickly arranged.

There is no clear answer as to how our country is going to create an energy efficient military. But we can look forward to this: public interest groups historically opposed to increased military spending will now support costly energy transformation for the military, while relentless advocates for increased military spending will try to close the checkbook if the word green is used for energy and not just uniforms.

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