Breaking Free ; New Plans Would Use New Technology to Make the United States Energy Independent

Article excerpt

Ray Kopp enjoyed tooling around in a hydrogen- powered Honda prototype vehicle so much that, for a moment, he pictured driving one home.

Then Mr. Kopp, an economist at Resources for the Future, remembered the car's price tag - $1.5 million - and his hopes were dashed.

Therein lies the core of America's energy problem. Short of radically altering America's driving habits, the United States cannot achieve energy independence without spending billions of dollars on new initiatives. And no political consensus exists to spend those sums despite decades of promises to cut oil imports.

But new plans are emerging that might sway lawmakers.

"Certainly energy independence for the United States is possible in rough technical terms," says Bill Prindle of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington, D.C. "The question is: 'What would it cost? How quickly could it happen? What kind of political and economic sacrifices would have to be made?' "

Achieving energy independence really means retooling the car. Coal, natural gas, and other domestic fuels can heat and power US homes and factories. But some 70 percent of oil is used in transportation, four-fifths of that by cars and trucks. Replacing them with alternative vehicles will be tough. Hydrogen cars are still at the prototype stage. Hybrids ease but don't solve the problem. Other alternatives - such as driving less - dredge up uncomfortable memories of the 1970s.

Even today, the three-decades-old injunctions to drive 55 miles per hour and buy "unsafe, sluggish, squinchy" little cars - as one new report says - still haunt consumers as a step backward for the American dream.

But a number of hard-edged new proposals suggest something different: heavy federal investment in new technologies.

The "New Apollo Project" is a plan backed by labor and environmental groups. Modeled after America's decade-long push to put a man on the moon, it would invest $300 billion over 10 years in dozens of energy projects from hybrid cars to factories to high- speed rail. Predicted result: 3.3 million new jobs; some 91 million high-mileage vehicles on the road; a $284 billion savings from a 16 percent reduction in energy use; and at least a 54 percent cut in Persian Gulf oil imports.

"It's clear this country has to make a dramatic transition to much more sustainable sources of energy," says Robert Borosage, president of the Institute for America's Future, which backs the plan. "In the long term, we can see total energy independence. But in the short term, you can still dramatically reduce American energy dependence, so we don't have to see young Americans guarding pipelines in Iraq and elsewhere."

Another plan put out earlier this month by a coalition of conservative Washington think tanks, including the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and the Hudson Institute, fingers imported oil as a critical national security problem that must be addressed.

Called "Set America Free," the plan envisions $12 billion in incentives paid over four years to automakers and consumers to create a market for flexible-fuel cars that run on biofuels distilled from plant material. At the same time, it would promote hybrid and "plug-in hybrid" gas-electric cars that charge up on electricity at home for short trips, but still use gasoline as a backup for longer trips.

"We think the transportation fuel sector should be diversified by utilizing more electricity as a fuel," says Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, an energy security think tank. "Plug-in hybrids could get 100 miles per gallon. With a flexible-fuel engine, where 80 percent of the fuel is alcohol and 20 percent is gasoline, a hybrid could get 500 miles per gallon" of gas.

Lighter but stronger

One of the most radical energy independence plans may also be among the most conservative in its assumptions. …