Bush Energy Plan Is Off Track and Unrealistic

CTC's James Dunn gives is take on the president's 2007 State of the Union address and its energy plan.

Published: 27-Jan-2007

President Bush's energy policy, presented in his State of the Union address, projected a 20 percent reduction in U.S. gasoline usage in 10 years, primarily through a massive expansion of ethanol production. This is to be augmented, to a smaller degree, by improved efficiency of new cars starting in 2010 through yet-to-be-legislated higher CAFE mileage standards.

This plan is flawed for several key reasons. First, increasing ethanol production fivefold over the already aggressive 2012 target may be good for the ethanol producers, but is not good for the U.S. or world populations as well as not practical or achievable! There is not enough corn in the U.S. to make 35 billion barrels of ethanol a year without adding 40 million acres of new crops. Why should we ask people if they would rather "eat or drive," by using a fuel choice that has extremely poor fuel efficiency, and will dramatically drive up the cost of most corn-based foods to people in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Second, mileage is worse with ethanol. In recent tests, Consumer Reports showed that ethanol, while offering some improvement in emisions, has a much lower energy content than gasoline and, therefore, provides much worse mileage -- only 75 to 85 percent of typical gasoline miles per gallon. Also, reports from Cornell University scientists and other researchers show that the amount of energy expended in producing a gallon of corn-based ethanol -- from the fertilizer and tractor fuel to the harvesting, production and delivery of the finished ethanol fuel -- is actually greater than the net energy recovered when we burn each gallon of corn-based ethanol. Ethanol made from sugar crops and, preferably, switchgrass (celluosic) offers more attractive returns, but celluosic-ethanol production methods are still being refined, with high-volume processes not yet commercially viable.

As quoted in the MIT Technology Review, David Victor, head of the Energy and Sustainable Development Program at Stanford University, feels that "the target that (Bush) sets of cutting down gasoline consumption by 20 percent in a decade is, almost certainly unachievable." "[There are also] big economic problems because [making ethanol from corn] certainly isn't competitive with other ways of making biofuels, such as from sugar".

However, Bush's other key method of increasing the U.S. CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards by 4 percent per year starting in 2010, makes far more sense, but will only contribute a small amount in the near term to his overall goal of reducing U.S. gasoline usage by 20 percent in 10 years. For instance, reducing the fuel used in new vehicles sold in 2010 by 4 percent would reduce the overall total gasoline consumed, by only about one-quarter of 1 percent since the new cars sold each year (about 17 million) represent only about 7 percent of the total U.S. vehicle population of over 220 million. However, after five to six years of continued increases of 4 percent per year in the CAFE standards, the total fuel savings could amount to a more significant aggregate level of 3 to 5 percent, depending on how broad the new standards are made.

Another factor is the impact on light trucks and SUVs, which represent over 50 percent of new vehicle sales. Higher CAFE standards are a more practical way to begin to wean our country from our "addiction to oil." As stated by Stanford's Victor, "Some sort of a ratcheting up of fuel-economy standards is long overdue.

And a lot of people have been calling for it. And maybe they have enough votes for it on the Hill, and enough support from the White House that something will actually get done about it."

But why wait until 2010 to improve our vehicle efficiency and start reducing our use of fuel ? Why not start conserving fuel today with simple actions that everyone can take to improve their vehicle efficiency, regardless of the type of vehicle or fuel they use! With several simple, cost-free steps, as mentioned on the weekly radio talk show "This New Car," virtually anyone can get 10 to 20 percent better mileage -- today!.

Although many of us drive hybrid vehicles, which are already quite efficient, there are several easy steps that we can take to further improve efficiency and reduce our use of fuel -- even with hybrids. The simplest, fastest method is to properly inflate our tires, preferably close to the maximum recommended pressure. This alone could save 4 to 6 percent of total US fuel use, if everyone would take just a minute to pump up their tires.

Another simple approach is to slow down! Just reducing the average highway driving speed to 60 miles per hour (from over 70 on many roads) could save another 3 to 5 percent. Also, more conservative driving habits (slower acceleration, anticipating upcoming lights and stop signs, less aggressive braking, and more coasting) will further increase our mileage. Other simple measures include using cruise controls on trips and paying attention to onboard miles-per-gallon displays -- which should be mandatory on all new cars!

Other methods include reducing weight of extra "junk" in our vehicles and reducing drag from roof-rack crossbars as well as open beds and tailgates on pickup trucks. For those purists who want the last 2 to 3 percent of mileage improvement, you should switch to synthetic oil and change your air filter and PCV valves on a regular basis.

If every American did just the simple things mentioned above, we could immediately reduce our country's total use of gasoline by over 10 percent - today! In fact, these ideas should be viewed as standard conservation measures, just as we do in our homes by switching to fluorescent lights and smart thermostats, etc. to save electricity.

The most promising, but futuristic, concept offered by the president was the development of plug-charge hybrid vehicles with enough additional battery power to operate solely on electric power for up to 50 miles, dramatically reducing their use of gasoline, with net equivalent mileage of over 100 miles per gallon.

Although plug-in hybrids are five to eight years off, dependent upon the pace and cost of new advanced-battery development, they offer the most significant method of reducing the use of fuel, relying instead on our existing power grid and use of excess off-peak power for recharging. Other emerging energy-storage technologies such as nanostructured batteries from Altair Nanotechnologies or A123 Systems, or even new high-density ultracapacitors from EEStor, could speed up the introduction of affordable plug-hybrids and represent significant potential savings in future U.S. fuel use.

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February 28,2006 address to National Governor's Ethanol Coalition.


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