At a lecture at the University last semester, chemist and environmentalist Michael Braungart trashed the popular notion that business and the environment are enemies. He illustrated this with the Model U, a concept car that he worked on with Ford Motor Company. Based on a simple idea – people don’t want to buy three tons of metal, glass and plastic, they just want to drive – the Model U would be leased to the driver for 60,000 miles, bundled with an insurance policy and full gasoline credit. Designed for disassembly, it would be returned to the plant at the end of the lease and its materials recycled many times over. The modular design would allow Ford to easily reconfigure manufacturing, cut material and tooling costs and respond more quickly to market demand. And because Ford would cover the gas, it would be sure to use the most fuel-efficient technologies.
A similar win-win proposition is before the state of Michigan. Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed a $2-billion bond initiative over the next 10 years to make the state the nation’s alternative energy hub. Given that a good part of America’s oil imports go into gas tanks and that Michigan has historically been the automobile capital of the United States, it only makes sense for Michigan to respond to the call to break America’s addiction to foreign oil.
“Alternative” is a misnomer: This is still energy. Biodiesel can be easily manufactured from vegetable oil and burned in unmodified diesel engines with no loss of power. Hydrogen fuel cells require expensive materials but are extremely efficient and exhaust only water. Michigan’s coasts are well suited for wind power – Mackinac City has already built two turbines. Nationwide, consumer demand for solar panels outstrips supply, and Michigan manufacturing could help bridge the gap. There’s a lot of money to be made in energy. But the chance will be lost unless the state’s political and business leaders get their priorities straight.
Automotive executives have long dismissed hybrid technology as an impractical toy for eco-freaks. Michigan’s legislators fought emissions regulations that would supposedly hurt the auto industry. While other states built federal research labs and landed grants, Michigan cut taxes. Now Toyota is laughing all the way to the bank. The Big Three are so financially crippled that they abandoned basic research years ago, effectively surrendering it to their competitors. Whether alternative energy research funding can save the auto industry may be up in the air, but at the very least, such research would create jobs on its own.
Michigan Republicans may distrust top-down research funding that tries to second-guess what the market will support. They have a point. We need a diverse portfolio of research funding, coupled with a broad-based incentive structure that encourages local businesses and municipalities to invest in energy options suited to their specific needs and opportunities. What is the alternative that Michigan’s Republican legislators offer? Repeal small business taxes so we can ride into the future on a lawn mower, a paper route or an ice-cream truck? The state that built the car deserves a high-tech fuel-cell hot rod, not a horse and buggy.