By Tom Still

EPHRAIM – Our drive to Door County for a family Thanksgiving rendezvous was a reminder of just how far gasoline prices have fallen. What cost $4 or more per gallon this summer is now well under $2 per gallon, a result of the global recession and price-driven incentives for consumers to conserve.

Will it last? Perhaps for the short term, but not for the long haul. Most people will get lax about conserving, whether it is gasoline, electricity or natural gas, as the sting of record prices fades in their memories. The economic recession will pass, too, in time, and stagnant energy consumption will rise worldwide – particularly in the developing world.

The intervening time is a dangerous one for investment in alternative energy research, development and production. The same economic forces that drove consumers, businesses and governments to clamor for cost-effective, “green” options to fossil fuels will subside now that prices have plummeted and the order-of-the-day is economic recovery.

Signs of retrenchment are everywhere. The early December meeting of United Nations’ environmental ministers in Poland, where a new treaty to cap carbon dioxide emissions will be debated, has lost steam. Governments and industry from Europe to Asia are saying they can’t deal with economic crisis and reduce greenhouse gases at the same time. Alternative energy industry leaders in France and Britain have already announced they are pulling back on expansion plans. Even T. Boone Pickens, who spent a small fortune on television ads touting his plan for energy independence, recently said oil prices must rise again before he can build his giant wind farm in West Texas.

No one disputes that restoring a healthy economy takes precedence, and that falling oil, coal and natural gas prices have changed the short-term equation. But now is not the time to abandon the search for next-generation fuels and energy strategies. In fact, staying the course may help speed economic recovery and set the stage for a more prosperous, cleaner future.

President-elect Barack Obama, without releasing details of his proposed economic stimulus package, has called on the country to build “wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.” Obama has also left open the door to expand the nation’s nuclear generation capacity, perhaps a reflection of the fact that he hails from Illinois, a state that gets close to half of its electricity from a half-dozen nuclear plants inside its borders.

In Wisconsin, where Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature are facing a $5.4 billion budget deficit by mid-2011 if current spending and revenue trends hold, there will be pressure to scale back on the state’s efforts to spur alternative energy R&D and production. Those calls should be countered with a reminder that Wisconsin has the natural resources, research capacity and manufacturing expertise to become an alternative energy and conservation leader. While state governments cannot and should not attempt to select “winners,” neither should they undercut the potential success of early-stage projects that could die without ample access to grants, loans and private capital.

And while some in the environmental movement may not like it, now is the perfect time to repeal Wisconsin’s outdated moratorium on building nuclear plants. Waste disposal is a national issue to be resolved, but the barriers aren’t technical; they are political. Would most Americans prefer the current above-ground storage of nuclear waste at more than 100 sites, or a single underground depository designed to .99999 degrees of safety? Repeal of Wisconsin’s 1980s moratorium would at least allow rational debate about an energy source that could dramatically curb use of coal, a proven environmental threat.

From biofuels to wind, and from solar to nuclear, investment in a new generation of energy sources will help the environment, create new jobs and spur economic growth. Don’t let today’s low gasoline prices and the recession obscure those goals.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.