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Monday, November 12, 2007
Energy independence in eight years

ONE OF THE CURRENT CROP OF PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES says that he will bring energy independence to the United States "by the end of his second term." Believe it or not, the candidate is a Republican.

Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, says the first thing he will do as President is send Congress a comprehensive plan for energy independence -- and that we will achieve energy independence by the end of his second term.

Huckabee says energy independence is vital to achieving success both in the war on terror and in the global economy, aiding both our security and our prosperity. To achieve it, he says, we will have to explore and conserve, and pursue all avenues of alternative energy: nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, clean coal, biodiesel and biomass.

The man makes sense to me, even if he does set very ambitious goals. As the richest and most technologically advanced society in the history of the world, who says we can't? Who says we shouldn't try?

How would we do it? Here are some of my suggestions. We start with tax incentives for cost-effective conservation. Then by applying the technology we have now and accelerating that which is now under development, including cost-effective fuel cells that could provide pollution- and carbon-free power. The government would provide much greater direct and indirect incentives for such research.

The government would mandate – for itself – technologies it wants to bring to consumers. For example, every vehicle the government purchases should be a hybrid. I am generally for free markets operating unfettered but "sin" taxes on activities with social costs (like pollution that leads to disease) and tax breaks for activities with social benefits (like energy savings that lead to less pollution and energy independence) make social sense.

If you say it can't be done that fast, consider this: Brazil is close to energy independent -- now. How? Brazil makes ethanol for about $1 a gallon, according to the World Bank. Ethanol accounts for about 20% of Brazil's transport fuel market. Gasoline use has actually declined since the late 1970s. Making these changes wasn't free, but it was affordable for Brazil, so you might think it would be for us as well.

France produces its electricity almost without any fossil fuel. How? Nuclear power. France launched a nuclear program dating back to 1973 and the "oil crisis." France's 59 nuclear plants now generate 78% of its electricity, and it is the world's largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low generation costs

Iceland is moving towards a total "hydrogen economy." How? Using geothermal energy, which currently produces about 26% of that country's electricity, and meets the heating and hot water requirements for around 87% of the nation's housing. Recently an MIT panel said that the thermal energy in the Earth's hard rock crust could supply a substantial portion of U.S. electricity needs, probably at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact.

Hydroelectricity now supplies about 19% of world electric power. Some estimate the world’s potential for hydroelectric power generation to be three times the current installed base. The U.S. is said to have exploited only half its hydro potential

Estonia's current shale oil shale accounts for about 95% of its electrical generation. Total world resources of oil shale are thought to be enough to yield about three trillion U.S. barrels of oil. The U.S. accounts for 62% of world resources.

Research into effective methods of sequestering carbon dioxide could produce "clean coal," a mineral resource we also have in great abundance.

When I visited Sicily last fall, large parts of the island were covered with wind farms. Many places in America could be too. Solar water heaters sat on nearly every roof there. Many parts of the southern U.S. could look that way too.

We are just one governmental nudge away from photo-voltaic technology in the form of roof shingles being economically feasible. Every house could provide much of its own power with its roof.

The medians of American highways could be growing plants which can be converted in fuel.

And the list of solutions could go, not the least of which is nuclear fusion which offers the possibility of virtually unlimited energy -- even if in the distant future.

David Brooks, a sensible conservative and a fan of Huckabee, says that Huckabee "vows, absurdly, to make the U.S. energy independent within eight years." Well, perhaps absurdly. But, consider that on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy presented this challenge to America: Let’s send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. Just in case you have forgotten, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface.


Gary D. Gaddy helped build a solar-heated house in 1973 and co-founded a solar and energy conservation company in 1977.

A version of this article was published in the News & Observer (Raleigh) on Monday November 12, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy

Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 7:23 AM EST
Updated: Monday, November 12, 2007 7:28 AM EST
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