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Achieving Energy Autonomy
April 5, 2006

Daniel M. Kammen
Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy
University of California, Berkeley

What does ‘energy independence’ really mean? More importantly, what does it do for the nation and the world?

These are excellent questions and ones that drove our interest within the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory in researching and writing our report entitled: Towards Energy Independence in 2025.

So, does energy independence mean that no imported energy can or should be used? Does it mean that any and all domestic fossil fuels should be used? The answer is a resounding ‘no’ on both counts, and on both economic and environmental grounds. What is clear is that our foreign policy and our domestic economy have been shaped, arguably to our detriment, by the need to secure an ever increasing amount of overseas oil. Energy is the largest component of our – and the world’s economy – and has been for far too long an area we have in the U. S. either taken for granted, undervalued, or assumed would be available with little economic, social, or environmental cost. All three of these assumptions, or operating principles, have proven incorrect, often tragically, as the effect of high oil prices on our economy have shown during the OPEC crises of the 1970s, and during Gulf Wars I and II, as well as in the wider geopolitics surrounding the 9/11 bombing and the U. S. response to it.

What energy independence means to me is the ability to make foreign and domestic policy decisions without being hostage to a resource – in this case oil – addiction, and all of the irrationalities that come with decisions made in the face of an addiction. To date the U. S. has not been able to break that addiction.

Do we need to go off fossil-fuel cold-turkey? No. As dire as the ever-mounting body of evidence about global warming is, we do have time, several decades in fact, if we begin the transition to a low or no-carbon economy effectively and with the resolve to make it a reality.

Environment. The fact is, we are running out of atmosphere faster than we are running out of oil. As a result of this very worrying situation, high fossil fuel prices alone are not going to generate the sort of transition away from fossil fuels that we need. High fossil-fuel prices may open the door for clean energy options, but without a strong technology base and a policy push, high prices won’t do it alone.

We do have a great many tools and options now available. Wind power is in many areas cheaper than natural-gas fired electric plants, solar photovoltaics are becoming cost-competitive, and solar thermal power plans can beat fossil-fuel competitors today. Hybrid cars are now available and plug-in hybrids running on corn-based or, ideally, cellulosic ethanol could get us to the 100 – 200 mile per gallon range with current or near-term technology. We also have the success stories of wind in Denmark and Germany, ethanol in Brazil, and the policy leadership that California, New York and the New England states have shown to point the way to a clean energy future.

Beyond that, Sweden has committed to oil independence by 2020 ,
Germany to a 40% greenhouse gas reduction goal by 2020, and a diverse network of cities are planning significant green energy efforts. We also know that investments in clean energy come at a bonus of increased job creation (see, e.g. Kammen, et al. 2004).

Taken in sum, these are overwhelming reasons to push hard and fast for a clean energy economy, and one with increased job creation, international energy security, and strong environmental benefits.

In our report, we examine scenarios to wean the U. S. off of oil by 2025, the super-aggressive path, and by 2050, the less aggressive but still revolutionary future-changing strategy. In both cases we find that the technologies exist today to begin the transition, and that the benefits of embarking on this path are tremendously positive, both locally and globally.

What is holding us back? Lack of investment in clean energy research is one obstacle (Margolis and Kammen, 1999; Kammen and Nemet, 2005), and another is a lack of appreciation of the benefits – in terms of jobs, geopolitical security, and environmental protection. What our report demonstrates, however, is that achievable pathways exist to make this transition a reality. Our job is to evaluate those options, and put this into practice. For this we thank Americans for Energy Independence, as the critical first step is articulating the vision and organizing action.

Farrell A. E., Plevin, R. J. Turner, B. T., Jones, A. D. O’Hare, M. and Kammen, D. M. (2006) “Ethanol can contribute to energy and environmental goals”, Science, 311, 506 – 508.

Kammen, D. M. and Nemet, G. (2005) “Reversing the incredible shrinking energy R&D budget,” Issues in Science & Technology, Fall, 84 – 88.

Kammen, D. M., Kapadia, K. and Fripp, M. (2004). Putting Renewables to Work: How Many Jobs Can the Clean Energy Industry Generate? A Report of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley.

Margolis, R. and Kammen, D. M. (1999) “Underinvestment: The energy technology and R&D policy challenge”, Science, 285, 690 - 692.

Read/Post Comments (5)

Comments (5)

Steve from NY
4/6/2006 10:09:16 PM

Great editorial! As Dr. Kammen makes clear, energy independence(EI) is achievable -- the technical challenges are not as great as some would have us believe. The crisis is one of leadership, and the battle today is against entrenched interests incapable of putting America first.

Big Oil's storm troops -- from K Street to the Halls of Congress to the White House to the Department of Energy -- still block every substantive EI initiative.

These same people comfort themselves by insisting that they "keep us from freezing in the dark." But what have they really done for their country?

They have given us a White House that takes its marching orders from sleezy petrotrash in charge of America-bashing police states. They have given us global warming. They have given us eternal war.

EI will reinvigorate our family farms by switching from gasoline to ethanol, allow us to finally break free of OPEC, help us address global warming, and end our participation in endless, ruinous oil wars.

Now that's a future worth fighting for!

Lorraine from CA
4/10/2006 8:56:09 PM

This editorial gives me hope. We don't have to do the impossible. We simply have to better use the technologies we have already developed, and make them more available, while we continue the research on these and other more far-reaching energy sources, including hydrogen. It is also most encouraging that the upgrading of hybrid technology to "plug-inable" capacity will put us over the edge in the near-term, buying us the time we need to re-make ourselves into a self-sustaining and sustainable nation.

4/13/2006 11:27:29 AM

Our politicians in Washington appear to be committed to wastefull spending, fiscal mismanagement and clueless as to the needs, wishes and desires of their constituents. We have the technology to send men into space, missions to far away planets and to develop high tech weaponry. We have the where-with-all to develop systems of transportation that will free us from our dependency - no, the clutches of the Middle East oil Barons. Yet, "Pork-Barrel" projects take precedent. New tax breaks are available for purchase of hybrids; but, small business owners can get bigger tax breaks by buying gas-guzzling SUV's! Federal tax rules allow a credit of up to $3150 for purchase of a hybrid car. Owners of a small business who buy a Hummer or any other SUV weighing more than 3 tons get a deduction of up to $25,000 if they use the vehicle exclusively for work- and, in addition, they can also deduct the depcreciation on the remaining amount. But, if small business owners buy cars weighing less than 3 tons, they can only claim $15,535 in depreciation over 6 years and $1675 each additional year. Now, our government has set gas mileage requirements for SUV's. They have to increase their fuel efficiency by 11 percent over the next 5 years! Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that these rules are being phased in over the next five years the lessen the impact on the "fragile" U.S. auto industry that has been hit by supposedly declining market share and huge financial losses. This is shameful! Our government could accomplish so much more to cut our addiction to oil by substantially raising the fuel economy standards. Look what the Japanese have done in developing more fuel efficient autos - and hybrids! Why have we lagged behind? It certainly makes one think about the relationship between the oil companies, auto manufacturers and our illustrious politicians.

Brion from CA
4/17/2006 2:33:11 AM

Steve from NY says it all and says it best. There is simply not enough outrage and will in the general public. We should be motivated like we were in WWII. The technology is available and the benefits huge both environmentally and economically. We need leadership and organization.

Bill from IL
4/19/2006 6:19:08 PM

Geat thoughts from everybody. I see the biggest problem as one of a dying way of life(oil, fossil fuels)holding back the future. People resist change and the people who benefit from the statis quo will resist the most. This current way however will die, it's just a matter of when and how, not if. People need to see that the danger of waiting is worse than the change itself. People need to change their viewpoints and the governments and companies will follow. Talk to your neighbors, do some reasearch, do whatever you can. The death knell of oil and fossil fuels is ringing but the sound needs to be loud enough for everyone to hear.

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