Imagine never having to endure the stink of gasoline or the pain of paying at the pump. Imagine cities that smell as clean as the countryside and towns that pump electricity back to the cities from solar plants and wind farms. Imagine energy so cheap and machines so efficient that an energy crisis will seem as antiquated as a flat Earth. Now stop imagining. The technology to do this is already here. The only thing America is missing is the nerve to take it.

Angela Cesere

With a sleek aluminum and carbon fiber body, a 250-mile range and the ability to accelerate from 0 to 60 as fast as your average Ferrari or Porsche, the Tesla Roadster shatters the stereotype that paints electric cars as little more than golf carts. Powered by 900 pounds of batteries, it has a two-gear transmission, zero emissions and a gas pedal without the gas.

Not surprisingly, Tesla Motors wasn’t founded in Detroit. The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs-gone-automakers behind the company could never have got started in the land where dinosaurs still stalk the roads – and the boardrooms. Unfortunately, many Americans share the same view as Michigan’s shockingly imbecilic auto executives; it’s either environment or economy, golf carts or gas guzzlers, and never the twain shall meet.

Al Gore summed up the dinosaur view in “An Inconvenient Truth.” On one side of a balance, there are some gold bars. On the other side, there’s the entire planet. This picture is as inaccurate as it is ridiculous. As the Tesla Roadster shows, economic and environmental progress aren’t mutually exclusive but complementary.

For an example of what this could mean for the energy business, consider GreenFuels. This tech start-up produces bio-fuel from algae at a rate 40 times greater than the manufacture of corn-based ethanol. The algae itself feeds on exhaust from fossil-fuel power plants, reducing those plants’ carbon emissions by 40 percent. GreenFuels already has $11 million in venture capital, but future profits from green energy will make that figure look like chump change.

More ambitious schemes are in development. The Solar Chimney channels hot air from a huge desert greenhouse through a mile-high concrete tower, driving a 200-megawatt turbine at a total cost only somewhat greater than coal. Even nuclear power has a green side: Thorium reactors can burn plutonium waste left over from Cold War-era weapons programs, turning a long-standing problem into a source of power. They have political advantages as well, because they can be engineered to work without uranium or plutonium. That means Iran could pursue this technology all it wanted and never be able to build a bomb – removing any opportunity to use nuclear power as an excuse to develop nuclear weapons.

Now that even the U.S. Army is researching hybrid electric tanks, it may finally be time to admit that so-called alternative energy has gone mainstream. Supplies of solar panels can’t keep up with demand. Wind turbines now pay for themselves within a few years in many states. There’s a lot of money to be made in green energy – it’ll just be different people making it.

Oil companies have seen the writing on the wall. They’ve poured millions into propaganda outfits like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an Exxon-Mobil-funded think-tank whose manufactured experts appear in the media to denounce alternative energy as a wasteful government subsidy. This is pure hypocrisy – there never was a free market for energy. The entire nuclear industry was literally engineered by the government, and the oil companies’ primary market was created by the largest continuing federal subsidy in history – the interstate highway system. The real debate isn’t over whether or not to subsidize, but whether to keep subsidizing the status quo and face diminishing profits or to make a leap to technology that pays far bigger dividends in the long run.

Liberals who want others to want to protect the planet need to get real. Unless going green starts to pay some green, it won’t happen. Fortunately, profitability is almost a reality. The government just needs the courage to make traditional energy industries pay their own bills. Imagine how much better the economics of green energy would look if some of the estimated $58 billion in federal dollars that will be spent on nuclear waste storage in Nevada went to green energy instead.

Bull-headed fiscal conservatives will be repulsed by the idea of a Green New Deal, as suggested by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Democrats should do what Republicans did with global warming and simply call the idea by a different name. What America needs is a broad array of performance-driven energy initiatives that foster the best solutions for individual cities and states. After all, even the most uneducated investor can tell you that the surest way to good returns is through a diversified portfolio.

Toby Mitchell can be reached at tojami@umich.edu.

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