Ray Kopp enjoyed tooling around in a hydrogen- powered Honda
prototype vehicle so much that, for a moment, he pictured driving
Then Mr. Kopp, an economist at Resources for the Future,
remembered the car's price tag - $1.5 million - and his hopes were
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
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
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. …