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Renewable energy: the greatest business opportunity in history

By Jim Heckman, Robert Little, and James E. Jones

In a time of political polarization, there is one effort that should easily merit the support of all political persuasions: alternative energy development, which is really better termed "sustainable" energy.

For the political right, whose important values include U.S. business development and national security, there is scarcely a better effort to support. The planet now has seven billion people. By mid-century it will have 10 billion. Every one of them is going to want a refrigerator, a car, and air conditioning.

Meeting this demand with current fossil fuel sources would be self-defeating, accelerating their eventual depletion, greatly increasing environmental pollution (even if you don't buy global warming), and causing further environmental degradation and danger from extracting the resources.

The upshot of this confluence of burgeoning population and the certain need (at some point) of sustainable energy resources is, simply stated, the greatest business opportunity in history.

And the U.S. is ideally suited to become the world leader in it. We are never going to produce widgets as cheaply as many less-developed countries, but we have the intellectual, financial, and infrastructure sophistication to succeed in this highly technological area.

National security? Sustainable energy development would be Alka-Seltzer for a lot of very serious headaches in this area.

We could sell this to the world and take it to the bank big time. Why ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel giants don't set a goal of becoming the world's foremost sustainable energy companies is a deep mystery and a fantastic missed opportunity.

Conservatives' resistance to alternative energy development also makes one wonder if, deep down, they really don't have a regard for American ingenuity...

How about no more oil wars, removing the danger to the lives of our young people in military service? (What we're talking about here is permanent U.S. energy independence.)

How about freeing the U.S. from the uncertainties of world events related to energy availability (anyone remember 1970s' gas lines)?

How about neutering expansionist autocrats like Vladimir Putin (by removing his stranglehold on energy supplies to Western Europe, Ukraine, etc.) and repressive leaders like the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela (whose oil-funded regime started an ugly downward slide in that country that is little reported in the media)?

How about eliminating our de facto support of regimes repugnant to our values and who breed terrorists, like Saudi Arabia?

It is hard to think of a single action that would better free the U.S. from the difficult, destructive, and extremely costly international entanglements that fossil fuel reliance brings.

And regarding fiscal matters, for politically right budget hawks, the cost of public support of alternative energy development (remember that the nuclear power industry was developed using public support and enjoys it on a continuing basis) would be more than offset by savings in military expenditures, public health costs, and environmental regulation that clean, sustainable energy would bring.

This of course would free up scarce budget dollars for other pressing national needs and reduce any need for tax increases.

As for the political left, they presumably need little convincing. The prospect of a clean environment, staving off climate change, and liberating the country from the political, military and moral dangers of fossil fuels is sufficient. Funny, the "liberals" start to look more like conservatives in this area.

So what is the resistance to this apparent no-brainer? "Entrenched interests." Yes, there would be "losers" in this effort, and good planning would have to address the need to ameliorate this (we are in this together).

As for jobs, the preponderance of reports indicates that sustainable energy is a more productive job creator than fossil fuels, which, in the long run, is not a matter of opinion since eventually there will be no fossil fuel jobs. What really needs to happen is for the entrenched interests to realize that development of sustainable energy sources can be for their benefit, not their harm.

But all of this reasoning, strong as it is, can be put aside. No matter what one's political views are, the simple fact is that sooner or later the world will be running on sustainable energy.

Even with discovery of new fossil fuel sources, they will of necessity run out some day (becoming commensurately more expensive as that time approaches, with unwelcome economic and budget effects).

So here's where we are: we can pursue a major national project for alternative energy development, probably make major inroads on it within 15 years, and benefit ourselves and, happily, the rest of the world.

Or we can sit back and let happen what surely will and is already underway-China will move on it and become the world leader.

If that prospect alone isn't enough to move all political persuasions, we don't know what is.

Jim Heckman, Robert Little, and James E. Jones are board members of the Harrisburg-Hershey, Pennsylvania, chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.