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Rethinking U.S. Foreign Aid - Make RE, Not War

November/December, 2007 - Frank Zaski - Solar Today

For international security, foreign aid should include renewable energy and efficiency.

Commentators like Thomas L. Friedman and R. James Woolsey Jr. have persuasively described the strong relationship between international military conflict and the quest for oil. The Gulf War, the current Iraq war and the civil war in Sudan are but three conflicts in which securing oil rights was a key objective. Some predict we will see even more and larger conflicts as the worldís peaking oil supply is depleted. Declining sources of natural gas and uranium and the potential for misuse of nuclear energy are more sources of international tension. And the nuclear race doesnít end with North Korea and Iran. Twelve Middle Eastern countries have asked the International Atomic Energy Administration for help in starting their own nuclear programs.

Energy, economics, and national security are increasingly intertwined. One solution is for every country to enhance its own national security by transitioning to domestic sources of energy. Another is to slow the international proliferation of energy technology that can be made into weapons. Renewable energy and energy efficiency can be a major part of both strategies.

In fact, renewable energy and energy efficiency are so vital to international accord that both should comprise a significant portion of international foreign aid. By including this assistance as part of the annual $470 billion U.S. Defense budget, we will help create jobs, stimulate economies, protect the environment, lessen nuclear proliferation and reduce pressure to secure fossil fuels. One can think of it as good medicine to swallow the pill of spending on peaceful, preventative measures now rather than on more costly, invasive actions later.

Improving on the Nuclear Option

It is important for the United States and other world powers to provide for their own energy security and assist other nations, too, in order to minimize world conflict. By promoting and funding clean energy at home and abroad, world powers will reduce energy-supply tensions and make it less desirable for countries to develop nuclear energy and, potentially, nuclear weapons.

Letís look at Iran as an example. Iranís continuing construction of nuclear reactors has resulted in international tensions and sanctions. These sanctions have hurt Iranís economy and petroleum industry, resulting in a 15 percent unemployment rate. The nationís lack of imported refining equipment and expertise has forced it to actually import gasoline and limit oil exports. Iran also has severe water shortages. Nuclear reactors require millions of gallons of water a day for cooling, so completing its reactors would further deprive Iranians of scarce water.

The solution for Iran is a renewable energy program that can take advantage of its substantial solar, wind, hydro and geothermal resources, thus reducing Iranís desire for nuclear energy. Because Iran has heavily subsidized electricity, energy efficiency is underutilized. Iran has terrain and solar radiation levels similar to those of Arizona and New Mexico. Renewable and efficiency actions that work in these states would probably work in Iran, as well.

Although Iran is a rather rich nation, in offering renewable energy and efficiency funding, world powers have the opportunity to help motivate Iranís leaders to close down unfinished reactors in which they have already invested billions of dollars. It is not unprecedented for a nation to close partially or mostly completed nuclear reactors. Further, past Iranian statements and receptiveness during international negotiations suggest a willingness to negotiate the nuclear issue if substantial incentives are offered.

A coalition of countries included some renewable energy and efficiency assistance in an economic package offered to Iran in 2006. It was rejected. However, Iran would be more receptive to the total replacement of its nuclear program. Its goal is to expand electric capacity by 7,000 megawatts. It would seem that for an investment of about $20 billion in renewable and efficiency programs, Iran could meet its future electric needs without nuclear energy. It may seem odd to offer assistance to a relatively rich country, but consider that the United States spends more on the war in Iraq every two months.

Even Chinaís leaders believe renewable energy can replace nuclear reactors and oil to generate electricity. They proposed this idea during the recent nuclear decommissioning discussions with North Korea.

Winning the War on Climate Change

As with most foreign aid, assistance with renewable energy and energy efficiency would also help alternative energy companies in the fund-contributing countries. For example, as part of the Carter plan for peace in the Middle East, Egypt and Israel are required to buy American goods with aid dollars.

It is just as important for the United States and all countries to fight climate change around the world as it is at home. A pound of carbon dioxide saved in Pyongyang or Tahiti has the same climate change-mitigating effect as a pound saved in Toledo, Ohio. It will pay to be our brotherís keeper.

About the author: Frank Zaski is a retired Chrysler executive who spent many years in strategic planning positions. He has a B.S. in psychology from Michigan State University and an MBA from Wayne State University. He now is an energy activist and volunteer for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.