Sunday, July 16, 2006

The biofuel future

Two different reports have come out recently, and both - while disagreeing on some aspects - make it clear that America has the means to meet its energy needs over the next several decades while reducing its reliance on oil, though perhaps not fossil fuels.

The first is a presentation given by the Union of Concerned Scientists, who've long advocated stronger fuel-efficiency measures to curb America's oil habit. Not mincing words, the UCS presentation is titled "Fuel Economy: The Single Most Effective Step for Cutting Oil Dependence."

Increasing fuel economy is by far the best tool we have for cutting our oil dependence. It will deliver fast results. It has been proven to work from experience—we roughly doubled the fuel economy of our cars between the 1970s and the late 1980s. We can do this right now. The technology needed to increase the average fuel economy of our cars and trucks to 40 miles per gallon (mpg) has already been developed, but for the most part is collecting dust on automakers' shelves.

If we increased fuel economy to 40 mpg over 10 years, then within 15 years we would have saved more oil than we would ever get out of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge over its entire 40-50 year life. And the savings from better fuel economy would keep on growing indefinitely, while the oil wells would dry up.

Even more importantly, the development of a strong ethanol industry could complement the virtuous cycle of efficiency gains so that we're a) using less fuel more efficiently, and b) replacing what we do use with sustainably-harvested biofuels. This is essentially the same argument as the Rocky Mountain Institute's "Winning the Oil Endgame" from 2004.

Sustainability is key, because the existing ways of getting ethanol are basically useless when it comes to reducing oil consumption. (Don't believe me? Why has the price of ethanol basically tracked the price of gasoline?) The UCS highlights cellulosic ethanol, but there are other alternatives out there. Which brings us to the other report, via Energy Bulletin. The study is called "American Energy Security", and you can find the full report here. (PDF)

The report has some aspects that I disagree with - coal-to-liquids plants are recommended, something I think is a bad idea - but the report has a number of things to reccomend it. First of all, it raises the concern of Peak Oil front and center. Secondly, the report also emphasizes the need for conservation and efficiency. See a pattern? No serious analyst thinks the status quo can continue - America will only get through the next few decades in decent shape with radical efficiency improvements.

The main difference between the reports is less their prescriptions and more their tone: The second report is far more urgent, calling for a concerted national effort to build an "industrial rebirth" in America. Like I said, there are some aspects to the report I disagree with, but on that count I agree 100%: American politics needs to prepare for the next few decades of expensive oil with far more energy and vigor than has been the norm for the last 20 years or so.

A while ago now I wrote a post at my blog advocating that continually-increasing energy prices would, unless they subsided, eventually bring about the return of more intrusive state regulation of the energy market. I still stand by that - the calls for a new Apollo Program or a new Manhattan Project are all, effectively, calling for state leadership in a sector that has been devoid of it since the end of the Carter administration.

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