Set America Free - Part 2
By Bill Moore
If America is to get serious about slowing its growing dependence on imported oil, it will require two fundamental shifts in technology, Anne Korin, the co-director for the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, a conservative, Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The first is the development and deployment of plug-in hybrids.
"Think of it as a souped up hybrid, " she explained to me, "a vehicle that has an internal combustion engine and a liquid fuel tanks; and it has a battery that can be charged from an external electric outlet. So, what you're doing with a plug-in hybrid vehicle is, let's say you have a battery with a twenty miles range on that car. And what you do when you get home, you plug that in in your garage, just like your washer and your dry are plugged in your garage in standard outlet; and you'll have a twenty miles range on that battery.
"Now fifty percent of cars on the road in the US drive twenty miles a day or less", Korin observed. "But people want to have three hundred mile range on their car. So, that battery gives you that twenty miles range and most of your driving will be done on electric power. Less than two percent of our electricity is generated from oil. That electricity that you'll be driving on will be generated from whatever makes sense for your electric utility; coal, solar, nuclear power...
"Effectively, most of your driving will be done on electricity, but if you want to drive to your grandmother in Florida, you have your fuel tank. Your plug in hybrid vehicle can reach a fuel economy of a 100 miles per gallon of gasoline. That's a very significant thing and it does not effect user experience, so to speak. You're getting a car that's the same size; it looks the same, acts the same."
She stressed that electric utilities have a lot of excess generating capacity at night that could be used to recharge these plug-in hybrids. In fact, according to a study by EPRI, there is sufficient overnight capacity to recharge a up to a third of America's automotive fleet if they were all plug-in hybrids before utilities would have to begin addition additional generating plants.
Plug 'n Play Technologies
The second element of the 'Set America Free' initiative is a concerted shift to flexible fuel technology; in other words, giving every car and light duty truck that is sold in America from now on out, the ability to utilize gasoline, ethanol and methanol in any ratio of mixture similar to what's being done now in Brazil.
"Think of these as plug and play," Korin stated. The internal combustion engines in these future plug-in hybrids would be capable of utilizing these alternative fuels. In America, most ethanol comes from distilled grains, while in Brazil, it comes from sugar cane, and elsewhere from sugar beats. Methanol is another type of alcohol fuel, which can be produced from gasification of biomass. Korin favors coal as a significant methanol source, especially for the United States, China and India which have large reserves. If utilized through "clean coal" technologies, which sequester the carbon and remove contaminates and toxins like mercury and sulfur, it could be a relatively benign source of liquid automotive fuel for these countries. Considering the combined populations of China and India will soon be ten times that of the United States, the world's leading energy consumer, finding a way to make an acceptable liquid fuel from methanol will do much to stretch all three nation's limited petroleum reserves. Korin pointed out that there is a commercial coal-to-methanol plant in Kingsport, Tennessee that is owned by Eastman Kodak that "cleanly" produces the fuel for just 50 cents a gallon.
"There are three million flexible fuel vehicles on the road in the US. Many people drive flexible fuel vehicles and don't even realize they are driving them," she noted, adding that it costs manufacturers less than $100 to make flexible fuel cars. "This is a very good way to introduce choice into the market."
According to her estimate, it costs only $20,000 to convert an existing gasoline pump to handle alcohol fuels, or about $60,000 for put in a completely new pump.
If you combine the twenty-mile range, plug-in hybrid with a flexible fuel engine burning a mixture of 80% alcohol, either ethanol or methanol, and 20% gasoline, something pretty amazing happens.
"You can get 500 miles per gallon of gasoline," Korin said. "And these are with technologies that are not wishful thinking technologies".
Pillars of the Plan
This combining of off-the-shelf and near-ready technologies are considered the "pillars" of the 'Set America Free' plan. Korin acknowledges that there are other fuel saving technologies that could also be utilized, but her group wanted to focus an approach that utilized the current infrastructure, while achieving the maximum impact in fuel savings. She told me that IAGS has been studying the problem for sometime now.
"These are basically the best options that we could find, the best big options. We worked with technology experts, industry experts, scientists, policy experts. Everyone put their heads together to say, Okay, what can we do and how can we make it happen?"
Good question, especially given the moaning and foot-dragging usually manifest by carmakers.
Korin replied that automakers are not ideologically bound to what type of car they build, pointing out that DaimlerChrysler has actually begun to explore the plug-in hybrid concept.
"They just want to sell cars." She acknowledged that requiring carmakers to improve their fuel economy puts them at odds with the American marketplace that wants sport utility vehicles. "So, the beauty of plug-in hybrid vehicles is that it lets them keep selling SUVs; it's just that the fuel economy is much, much, much improved."
Korin believes that the way to encourage automakers is to provide them with tax incentives and federal fleet mandates that help pull the technology into the marketplace.
Fuel Cells and Hydrogen?
Far less prominent in the 'Set America Free' plan is support for hydrogen fuel cell technology. Of the $12 billion, four-year plan, some $2 billion would be allocated to continue fuel cell and hydrogen research. She see plug-in hybrids with their internal combustion engines as a natural pathway to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"It's not that you're going in a completely different direction," she said. "But fuel cell vehicles, if you listen to people [in] the hydrogen industry, you don't hear very encouraging numbers in terms of how quickly they can get these out to market. You're hearing 2030 before you can make a dent. We don't think we can wait until 2030.
"You know, if you look at other markets, we didn't wait until the Intel Centrino chip came out before personal computers hit the market... The enemy of the very good is the excellent. You can't wait for a perfect solution. There are technologies that are good enough now and we need to introduce [them] into the market now. When fuel cells drop in price and they make sense, they'll get into the market too. But frankly, I think that plug-in hybrids are going to be a lot easier to bring them into the market quickly."
Looking to 2025
IAGS and its allied think looked ahead to the year 2025 to determine what the potential impact of their proposal might be. The assumed that all of the cars and light duty trucks on the road by then will be hybrids and half of those will be plug-in hybrids. The net result would be that America's oil imports would drop by eight million barrels a day.
"Today we import 10 million barrels a day and are projected to import almost 20 million barrels by 2025. Also, if all these cars were flexible fuel vehicles, our oil imports would drop by as much as 12 million barrels a day, and this is the low hanging fruit.
Focus on Congress
I asked Korin which presidential candidate she thought would best be able to move the 'Set America Free' energy blueprint forward. She replied that it was her opinion that we need to focus on Congress, instead.
"I think it's Congress that needs to get its hands dirty and work on moving this forward." She wished that both candidates had spoken more directly to the issue of energy security, but when it comes to actually implementing the policies that will make the program happen, that falls of the U.S. Congress. She said that Congressmen from coal states need to sit down with their counterparts from the agriculture states and Michigan and work out a plan to make this happen.
"In general, the members of Congress... care about national security and understand the link between our oil dependence and national security vulnerability. [They] need to put aside their differences on other issues and get together and focus on this and make it happen."
"One of the issues here is that we try to bite off too big of a chunk. It's very hard to make things happen. If we look at the energy bill, it addressed many, many different issues. I think we need to focus on something that addresses both the big and the narrow issue of oil dependence. If we do, it will be a lot easier for both parties to agree on that, and I can't say strongly enough how important it is that this be done in a bi-partisan spirit, because I really don't think it's possible to get anything done in the House or the Senate if its not done in a bi-partisan spirit."
In general, the reaction from Congress has been positive, Korin told me. "We're talking about very practical things and very easy to understand measures that can be taken with a measurable effect that you can see... And the national security imperative resonates with everybody."
She admits, though, that "there is a lot more work to be done on that front; and I think that private citizens can play a very important part in raising the profile of this issue and the importance in the eyes of their elected representatives."
While initially conceived of by what Korin calls "national security hawks", the group is now reaching out to include environmental advocates like the NRDC. Former CIA director Jim Woolsey told Korin that the coalition needs to include, "do-gooders, tree huggers and hawks".
"We all need to come together. We all have different priorities, but this plan can address many different priorities of many different groups in a way that can actually get things done, and not in a way of diluting things to the lowest common denominator."