NRG – The Next Generation

We’re hearing a lot about energy policy in the current political debate, but most of it is focused in areas that are nearly irrelevant. Both candidates support (at least with words) the idea of energy independence, use of renewable or non polluting energy sources, and increased domestic oil production. The major difference being that the GOP position is best summed up by the title of Newt Gingrich’s new book, “Drill Here, Drill Now.” While the Democrats (along with most every geologist and economist in the country) seem to think that drilling everywhere domestically is a short-sighted strategy with only minor long term effect. But there is also wide agreement that oil companies prefer the GOP strategy and there is a feel-good political aspect to it that resonates well with people who have the political attention spans of… well… most Americans.

But few people, and fewer politicians are talking about the real long term energy strategy needed and what that means to America far outside the realm of gas prices. Energy technology is the next economic wave. Not oil, not natural resources, but the technology associated with clean efficient energy production, distribution, and consumption of all forms of energy. Post WWII, we developed an industrial manufacturing base unrivaled in the world. In the 1960’s, we began an electronics revolution that wove the computer and the Internet into the very fabric of modern life. But those waves are have passed. The next wave is most likely energy technology (ET).

When we think about ET, we tend to think only in terms of reducing foreign oil dependency. While that’s important, it is far too short sighted. Yes, we need to reach a point where the Mid-East does not have a disproportionate influence on our foreign policy. But close on the heels of the Mid-East, we have a looming trade deficit with China and a credit issue with Russia and other countries on the ascendancy that won’t need to win a war with us, they can simply foreclose. More than cheap gas, we need an exportable product of our own. Something that will carry us well into the century as the economic power we’ve come to enjoy being. And remember, it is that sustained economic power that enables us to be the political and military Goliath that we have come to take such pride in being. It is also that economic prowess that will provide jobs, rebuild our domestic infrastructure, educate our children, provide universal health care, shore up Social Security, and raise our standard of living. It all hinges on us finding a way to fuel economic growth, not our SUVs.

Both candidates recognize that economic growth is key. They differ over how to get there in the next four years, but honestly neither of them has yet illuminated a vision for what achieves growth over the coming decades. The answer is ET. We are, for the time being, the most innovative country on the planet. We possess the capability to find technical solutions for economically producing, storing, distributing, and efficiently using energy in multiple forms. In the short term this solves our domestic energy consumption and pollution problems. But while we’re doing that, countries like China, India, and Russia are polluting themselves into oblivion (have you seen the “mist” in Beijing?), and increasing their own dependency on an oil resource which, over the next few decades, will be globally in short supply. And guess who’ll have the answer, and be willing to sell it to them at a tidy profit? That’s right, the good ‘ol US of A.

Gee, you’re thinking, that sounds swell. But how do we get there? Well “my friends” (sorry, just trying to appeal to any Republicans out there) the answer is government sponsorship.

I know, I know, you’re thinking that the government can’t possibly be the answer to anything, but let’s look at history. During WWII, FDR incented and challenged industry to build up its manufacturing capability to support the war. The post war result was an unparalleled manufacturing infrastructure repurposed for domestic production. That boom created the new American middle class and decades of “happy days”. In the 1960s, JFK challenged America to beat the Russians to the moon. The money that was poured into the fundamental research required to get us into space fueled the high tech industries which made our modern life possible. Those achievements would never have been made without government sponsorship and inspiration. The free market alone would never have driven innovation at that rate.

Something similar is required now. There are two key ingredients to make it happen. One is an external focal point. We have spent seven years now fixated on Islamic terrorism. It’s time to let that go. They are an unworthy enemy, and in the greater scheme they are unimportant. Once we achieve our ET goal, we won’t have reason to meddle in the affairs of the Mid-East, and they will move on and hate someone else. Will we get a bloody nose or two in the meantime? Probably, and we need to do what we can to minimize that. But we can’t let it paralyze us. The real threat, the real enemy, is China. And no, I don’t mean enemy in the sense that they are evil and want us all to burn. (Quite the opposite, they want us to thrive, to a degree. We are funding their ascendancy.) But they are the “enemy” in the sense that the Yankees view the Red Sox as an enemy. They are competition, and increasingly, damn formidable competition.

Europe passed into an economic downslide post WWII and is only now beginning to pull out of that nosedive. Prior to that, they were the cultural and economic center of the planet, a role we hold now. China is rising and will supplant us as the next cultural and economic superpower unless we prevent that. They need to be our external focus. They are a worthy opponent.

Second, we need an inspirational leader. One who will rally people to a cause, make them believe in their future and in their children’s future. One who will commit government resources to incent the innovation and fund the research. One who can create a societal commitment that will transcend his term of office. I don’t know if Obama is up to that task, but my friends, John McCain and the GOP are not.

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