The days of cheap fossil fuels are over. While the hurricanes' impact on energy prices may prove to be relatively short-lived, other forces are setting the stage for tighter energy supplies and higher prices for the long term. At the heart of the problem is Americans' hyper energy-intensive lifestyle — gas-guzzling cars, super-sized homes, air conditioners, giant plasma televisions and other trappings of the "good life." Add China's and India's increasing demands for energy, geopolitical instabilities in oil-rich lands and the unpopular prospect for more domestic drilling for fossil fuels, and it equates to Americans paying higher gasoline, electricity and heating bills into the foreseeable future.
A better way, however, entails transforming America's lifestyle into a new age of cleantech — increasing use of more energy- and resource-efficient, higher-performance technologies and products such as fuel cells, photovoltaics, geothermal, wind, and biomass energy sources. Just as economic and political forces transformed America from an agrarian to a coal-based industrial economy in the 19th century, and then into the oil and information ages in the 20th century, today's energy crisis warrants its transition into a new cleaner technological era.
Competition: In the face of skyrocketing energy prices, some other countries' economies are not nearly as vulnerable as America's. The Wall Street Journal reports that Japan has invested significantly into energy efficiency and advanced power-generation systems. Japan's significant lead in gas-electric hybrid car technology has become the envy of the auto industry. In short, Japan's "higher-performance" industrial base holds a significant competitive advantage in global markets.
Terrorism: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserts that America is funding both sides of the war on terror. Our taxes finance our military, but our oil dollars flood unstable regions of the world, ultimately flowing into the hands of jihadists and charities that support them. Investments into cleantech not only may reduce our oil dependency but also put our money into the hands of America's scientists, developers and entrepreneurs.
Global warming: Don't believe in global warming? It doesn't matter. One hundred forty-one nations around the world have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty requiring the reduction of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases created by the burning of fossil fuels. Although the U.S. has not signed the treaty, places such as California and Salt Lake City intend to implement their own carbon-reduction policies. Companies that fail to recognize the innovation opportunities are destined to fall behind competitively.
Venture capital: Venture Capital Journal reports that cleantech investment opportunities are becoming mainstream as developing countries build their industrial infrastructures with the latest, most efficient technologies. With General Electric and Goldman Sachs already committed to cleantech, other American companies should seize the economic opportunities for exporting cleantech know-how.
How can Americans speed up the transition to the cleantech era? Cutting subsidies to fossil-fuel companies, which are already awash in profits, and investing in efficiency and cleantech initiatives should be priorities. Taxpayers should demand that government fleets of buildings and cars be retrofitted for super-efficiency as well. Likewise, industry should recognize the bottom-line opportunities of energy efficiency and the selling of cleaner, high-performance products. Consumers, too, should wise up about how their energy consumption impacts their pocketbooks and invest in high-efficiency, cleaner products such as "Energy Star" appliances, solar-powered versions of electronics and compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs.
Energy conservation isn't so much about making sacrifices as making the right lifestyle and product decisions. Moving America into the cleantech era can bring economic opportunity and energy security for the 21st century.
Utah State University marketing professors Cathy L. Hartman and Edwin R. Stafford will speak at the Partners in Business Seminar, Nov. 9, at the Eccles Conference Center at USU.