A raft of prominent people seems to want the masses to believe there is no hope of energy independence.  Of late the Saudi’s Prince Turki Al Faisal checked in to the offer that the Western World and Saudi Arabia are inevitably tied together in the oil market.  The comments follow those such as former CIA director John Deutch, former secretary of defense and secretary of energy James Schlesinger, Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Yergin, the former chairman of Intel Andy Grove, even the members of the Council on Foreign Relations energy security task force have notoriously talked down the concept.

Its what the concept means that matters.  Just what all of the above mean by energy independence isn’t just one idea, but remember, energy isn’t fuel.  Fuels can get in short supply and see fearsome astronomical highs and depressing groveling lows.  But energy is abundant, it falls from the sun endlessly, radiates out from the planet’s core, and man has found one way to make it freed with fission, looks to be closing in on fusion and other even more exotic ways to exploit E=MC2 may becoming too.  Energy isn’t rare or expensive, yet gathering and reforming it into useful work can be an expensive challenge.

Energy independence does not mean self-sufficiency, it doesn’t mean not importing any oil or barricading a country from the global market.  Nor is energy independence about the amount of oil we consume or import.

Energy independence means turning primarily oil and other fuel products from strategic commodities that in short supply or extreme price pressure may drive economies to depressions or undermine the global economy and so determine the course of world affairs, into just another trading commodity.

Here is a real example to explain.  The electrical generation business has on the short list of sources, wind, wave, solar cells, solar thermal, hydro, natural gas, oil, coal and nuclear.  That ‘s a long short list.  Oil’s importance and critical need comes from its virtual monopoly over fuel for transportation that supports the entire economy and the modern way of life. Worldwide, 95 percent of our transportation energy is petroleum-based. Cars, trucks, planes, rail and ships run on nothing but oil or oil slightly diluted with alternatives and a bit of electricity.  There’s the issue, a massive dominance of petroleum, an oil monopoly in the transport fuel market.

North America is already energy independent for electrical generation and with a little resolve can become a vast overproducer and drive costs down dramatically.

The two consumer roles that can move the economy to independence are simply conservation meaning choices of low fuel use over profligate waste and more efficient tools.  Efficient tools can insulate a person or family, but as a society a larger choice needs made.

Transport vehicles, cars in particular will need to be more like the electrical generating system with more fuel choices.  The ability to run on other fuels in addition to those refined from petroleum is a crucial first step.  So long as cars are gasoline-only, oil remains the only source of energy, which is prescription for dependency, price manipulation and market volatility.  Not just energy independence is implausible, but economic security is at grave risk.

The technology is already here for the first step.  The current and least expensive is the flex-fuel vehicle that can run on any combination of gasoline and alcohol.  Alcohol does not mean only ethanol, and ethanol does not mean only corn as a source of supply.  It costs something less than $100 per new car to make a car flex-fuel capable. It only requires a fuel sensor and corrosion-resistant fuel parts and some adjustments in engineering choices.  Some of the engineering choices can assist in efficiency as well.

An Open Fuel Standard designed such that every new car sold in the United States be flex-fuel would not only help build the industry of alternative fuels and the associated refueling infrastructure, it would drive the technology of foreign automakers to add fuel flexibility options to all of their models, effectively making it an international standard, impacting the whole world market.

The next logical step is changing the car’s source of energy entirely.  Electricity can be transportation energy that can compete with oil.  Electrons with voltage are cheap, cleaner with the potential to be emissions free, domestically produced and can be generated from the multiple sources listed above and others not yet invented. Its refueling infrastructure is as close as wall sockets that are widely available. All that’s needed for an electric car to connect to the grid is an extension cord.

About 50% of Americans drive 25 miles per day or less, so shifting from fuels to electrons would make a visit to the local gas station a rare thing indeed.  Those lucky ones whose work, errands, friends and family are that close with a daily range of under 100 miles have an enormous expense advantage.  They need only rent a larger fueled vehicle for long trips.  If those U.S. consumers all owned an electric vehicle or hybrid half of the U.S gasoline market would be gone, some 12.5% of the world’s demand.  The hybrid models if made flex fuel as well could see miles per gasoline gallon numbers way beyond 500 mpg.

The world’s automakers have already committed to produce models of limited-range pure electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and fueled hybrids.  The plug-in electric hybrid allow drivers to travel on stored electric power for the first 20-40 miles, after which the car keeps running on the liquid fuel in the tank, providing the standard 200-400 mile range.  The opening to energy independence is there, its just a matter of consumer choices now.

For the energy independence naysayers, it’s too late.  The masses of vehicle buyers are plenty smart enough, they’ve seen the $147 barrel of oil collapse to near $32 and swing again to over $70.  Headlines of forecasters offer $200 barrels when the economy recovers.  Hybrid sales are on the upswing again.  The plug-ins are coming.  Oil’s monopoly is on its last legs.

But energy independence and security still depend on consumers making choices, government getting the doors open for alternative energy and fuel supplies and business healthy enough to invest in the infrastructure we’ll need to get the fuels and energy where its needed cheaply.


2 Comments so far

  1. jim takchess on September 10, 2009 3:36 AM

    The electrical generation business has on the short list of sources, wind, wave, solar cells, solar thermal, hydro, natural gas, oil, coal and nuclear

    + geothermal and here in Northern New England Wood (Biomass) electric generation.

  2. Kevin on September 14, 2009 9:37 PM

    Actually it’s economic independence that you’re talking about. Of course you’re not going to get off oil or anything other commodity. That would be ridiculous-but you can work to diversify. Also, there are 20 vital strategic commodities like uranium and rare earth metals that we need that we will never be independent on. They are actually more important than oil because there will never be a substitute.

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