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Marginal: Better Green than (in the) Red

If Al Gore came out on behalf of hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolets, I suspect that there would be a considerable number of people who would either question his motives, say something snarky about his consumption of hot dogs and apple pie, wonder why he says nothing about hamburgers, ice cream or Fords, or maintain that there is a whiff of junk science in the room.

If Al Gore came out on behalf of hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolets, I suspect that there would be a considerable number of people who would either question his motives, say something snarky about his consumption of hot dogs and apple pie, wonder why he says nothing about hamburgers, ice cream or Fords, or maintain that there is a whiff of junk science in the room. I certainly hold no brief for Mr. Gore. And I am fairly confident that the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Academy Award®-winning former vice president is now making a considerable amount of money as he travels around promoting the idea that the planet is being trashed by the human inhabitants and excoriating waste in all forms, with the exception, perhaps, of excessive wealth.

But I've got to admit that I think that his speech titled "A Generational Challenge to Repower America"-presumably he's not necessarily talking about my ge-ge-ge-generation, although we're part of it-is, whether you buy into all of his arguments ("Scientists with access to data from Navy submarines traversing underneath the North polar ice cap have warned that there is now a 75% chance that within five years the entire ice cap will completely disappear during the summer months") or not (I am fairly confident that there are those with reams of printouts showing that the temperature patterns are not indicative of anything beyond the fact that everyone talks about the weather), should give us pause.

And the reason is this: Because it is the sort of challenge that America can uniquely take on and master. It is a technical matter. And what this country excels in is technology development. What's more, given the state of the auto industry, where thousands of engineers and workers are now on the street, there is an abundance of talent and capability that can be tapped. "Today," he stated, "I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years."

What's the downside? Well, there is that matter of it costing an estimated $1.5- to $3-trillion in order for us to achieve what he's talking about. A lot of money by anyone's measure. But if not the U.S., then who?

We've heard domestic vehicle manufacturers talk about "energy independence." We've heard politicians talk about "energy independence." And if we were able to capture the thermal wind emanations we might be able to generate a few megawatts. Lots of talk. Less action. What's the cost to the nation's economy as the domestic auto industry is not merely down on its heels, but seemingly no longer even has shoes? It has repercussions far beyond the individuals directly involved. The impact is, in a word, staggering. Think of Flint, Michigan, once a vital municipality driven by General Motors, now ranked in what Forbes magazine recently called "America's Fastest-Dying Cities" (http://www.forbes.com/business/2008/08/04/economy-ohio-michigan-biz_cx_jz_0805dying.html). Do we need any more of those on the landscape?

Let's put partisan politics aside for a moment. Even Gore, a professional politician if there ever was one, admits, "The greatest obstacle to meeting the challenge of 100% renewable electricity in 10 years may be the deep dysfunction of our plastics and our self-governing system as it exists today."

Let's consider the implications for the market. Who in Detroit doesn't remember what happened during the period of earlier oil shocks, when suddenly those small Japanese cars that were thought by those in the corner offices of the domestic vehicle manufacturers to be nothing more than "sh*t boxes" became mainstream vehicles of choice? Arguably, the successes of pickups and big SUVs notwithstanding, Detroit has never recovered. What would happen if, say, the Chinese were to develop an efficient plug-in hybrid or even a hydrogen fuel-cell powered car in the next few years and were to bring it to the North American market, even through a non-traditional venue like Wal-Mart? What would that do to domestic car sales? The need for action sooner rather than later (which is why this "10-year" goal is important) is essential if we don't want to see the lights off in Detroit, Auburn Hills, Dearborn-and the hundreds of communities with supplier companies both large and small. The list of "America's Fastest-Dying Cities" would look like a chapter in the U.S. Census.

And if you don't imagine that there aren't people in other parts of the world who are feverishly working to transform the automobile powertrain, think again.

Gore's plan goes beyond just cars and has implications for a wide array of industries in the U.S. but that is a good thing for the U.S. auto industry, because the more people working in those industries, the more disposable income there is for cars and, yes, even trucks. And if it saves an iceberg or two, to boot, all the better, I suppose. 

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