If you go

What: The Young Conservatives for Energy Reform and S.C. Young Republicans host retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, who will speak about the national security threats posed by America’s overdependence on fossil fuels.

When: 6-9 p.m. Saturday.

Where: The Renkin Dining Room of The Citadel Alumni House.

More Info: www.yc4er.org

Conservatives, for the most part, haven’t been keen on alternative energy sources, particularly solar and wind, over the past three decades.

When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, one of his first orders was to remove the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had placed on the White House roof.

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh routinely derides solar, wind and electric cars.

And who can forget Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s energy mantra: “Drill, baby, drill.”

But one longtime, local, pedigreed conservative hopes to change that reputation and sees clean energy and air as a “family value” that has no place in partisanship.

Michele Combs, a Republican organizer since her college days in the late 1980s and daughter of Christian Coalition of America President Roberta Combs, formed Young Conservatives for Energy Reform in the spring of 2012.

Since then, the Hanahan resident has been using her background and skills in creating a grass-roots network to grow support among young conservatives, notably Young Republican clubs, across the United States to support energy reforms.

“Of any issue in the past 20 years, I think this one should be a bipartisan issue,” says Combs. “We really need to come together as a country on it.”

All-American themes

Her strategy is to appeal to what she views as conservative common sense: that alternative energy is good for national security, that it provides economic opportunities through jobs and energy cost savings, and that because its sources are home-grown, alternative energy is ultimately patriotic.

Combs is working with retired generals and admirals to spread the message that alternative energy is good for national security.

On Saturday from 6-9 p.m., her group and South Carolina Young Republicans will be hosting Ret. Marine Corps Lt. General Richard Zilmer to speak at The Citadel Alumni House.

Zilmer says cutting our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels will reduce our economic vulnerability.

“Some say that fully exploiting our domestic energy resources is the solution to all of our energy problems. It’s not. It may be a part of the solution, but it is emphatically not the solution,” says Zilmer, who is among 12 military leaders who worked on the Center for Naval Analysis’ report, “Ensuring America’s Freedom of Movement: A National Security Imperative to Reduce U.S. Oil Dependence.”

Zilmer adds, “Even if we fully exploited our domestic fossil fuel resources, we’d still be tethered to an international market that leaves us vulnerable to price swings and spikes.”

His appearance at The Citadel will mark the first official event for Young Conservatives for Energy Reform in South Carolina.

A wake-up call

Combs, 46, says her first brush with the nation’s environmental issues came when she was pregnant with her son, Logan, more than 13 years ago. She was warned not to eat fish because of the risks of mercury to her developing fetus.

“As I researched it, I found out about all the mercury from coal-fired plants and I couldn’t believe we (conservatives) weren’t talking about this. I asked why aren’t we talking about mercury and clean air and I was told it was a Democratic or liberal issue. I thought to myself, ‘No, it’s not. It’s a family issue. Everyone wants clean air.’ ”

She didn’t really act on that sentiment, however, until about four years ago.

At one point, Combs found herself among a cross-section of political people at an event in Colorado to talk about environmental issues.

“When I opened the door, who was the very first person I meet? ... Al Gore. Talk about being thrown in the environmental fire. But there were conservatives there, too, and the Gores were very nice to me.”

Combs came away realizing that conservatives needed to learn why energy reform, and even protecting the environment, is or should be a value they embrace.

The wrong messengers

She blamed the “messengers” of energy reform, including Gore himself and President Barack Obama, for turning off many conservatives, particularly “low information voters who don’t go beyond” listening to Limbaugh on radio.

Combs hopes to rally conservative messengers with a conservation-minded cause and make it OK to support alternatives to fossil fuel.

“No one can say that I’m not a dire hard, pro-life, pro-family conservative. When they see someone like me, it’s a relief,” says Combs.

She also notes that Obama, for all his promises for energy reform, has failed to deliver by getting bogged down other issues, such as health care, immigration reform and gun control.

“I think this administration has done a lot of things to hurt this issue,” says Combs. “I have no love for (Obama) because I was a Romney supporter, but I think that Obama could’ve done a lot more on energy reform and he’s done nothing but make a lot of people upset on his side.”

In her travels, Combs also reminds people that conservation used to be a platform that the Republican party owned, citing President Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of the national parks, President Richard Nixon’s array of environmental protection acts (creating the Environmental Protection Agency and Endangered Species Act), and President George H.W. Bush’s bipartisan support for protections against acid rain.

As for climate change, aka “global warming,” Combs has found a range of beliefs among conservatives from those who think it is occurring to those who adamantly disagree.

But her argument transcends climate change. Rather, she zeroes in on finding alternatives to fossil fuels simply as a means to simply having cleaner air and a healthier environment.

Her mother has joined her in championing the cause and helped persuade Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., to be a part of climate change legislation in 2010. His support, however, has rubbed many South Carolina conservatives the wrong way.

Glimmers of hope

Combs’ hope for conservative change lies primarily in the young.

“I think young people get it and understand it. Most of them have young families and want a cleaner environment for their families. I think we start there because I just think they seem to be a little more open-minded,” says Combs.

And while progress in Washington has stagnated during the political impasses of recent years, Combs says she continues to meet conservative leaders on local and state levels who have taken on energy reforms.

For example, staunch Republican Mayor Greg Ballard of Indianapolis has led the charge to convert the city’s vehicle fleet to plug-in hybrid cars and compressed natural gas trucks.

Closer to home, Combs sites Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s support for energy efficiency in state buildings and Republican Sen. Paul Campbell’s leadership in supporting clean energy in South Carolina.

The Berkeley County senator, who is the former president of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, echoes many of Combs’ sentiments.

“It’s not in America’s best interest to send money overseas to pay for energy from nations that don’t like us. For the sake of our economy and national security, we should pursue true energy independence, “ says Campbell.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.