Now Is Time to Modernize US Power Grid

OpEd by former deputy director of the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory, John Kotek.

Published: 01-Feb-2009

As Congress and President Obama try to find a way out of our economic mess, there are a lot of breathtakingly large numbers being thrown around - $17 billion dollars to rescue U.S. automakers; $700 billion to bail out the U.S. financial system; $825 billion for Obama's economic stimulus plan.

Well, here's an even bigger number for you: $1 trillion. That's the amount of money OPEC countries are expected to earn from oil exports in 2008. A staggering $300 billion of that is expected to come from the United States alone. Even with falling global oil prices, OPEC countries are still expected to earn an astounding $600 billion from oil exports in 2009.

Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, got right to the heart of the matter when he said, "Americans are witnessing - or, more to the point, contributing to - the greatest transfer of wealth from one set of nations to another in history." And that wealth isn't being transferred to places where America is particularly popular. About half is going to just three countries - Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela.

So what can we do to stop sending our money to OPEC nations and keep more of it here in the United States? For starters, we have to be smarter about the way we use oil. Higher-mileage vehicles, measures to reduce traffic congestion and proper vehicle maintenance are just a few of the many ways we can realize relatively small but important oil savings in the near-term.

While these small steps can make a noticeable difference, truly dramatic reductions in our oil imports require us to go beyond today's approaches and move aggressively to deploy potentially game-changing technologies. Two such approaches are being developed right here in Idaho at the Idaho National Laboratory: plug-in hybrid vehicles and the production of transportation fuels from domestic resources like coal and oil shale.

Today, nearly all of our transportation energy needs are met using oil, more than 60 percent of which is imported. Plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are being designed to run on batteries for about 40 miles before the gasoline motor kicks in, so most drivers will be able to use only electric power for their daily commute. This means that by moving to widespread use of plug-in hybrids we can immediately reduce our oil consumption while diversifying the source of our transportation energy, since U.S. electricity comes from a variety of sources including coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydropower and wind. And as we increase the use of low-carbon resources like wind, geothermal and nuclear for electricity production, we can reduce the carbon emissions that result from transportation.

Another way to diversify our transportation fuel supply is to produce fuels using abundant domestic resources like coal and oil shale. Traditional coal-to-liquids technology has deservedly been criticized due to high carbon emissions, but the INL has developed ways that blend coal with low-carbon inputs to reduce carbon emissions to levels below oil-based transportation fuels.

Finally, we must accept that the move toward plug-in hybrids will require new investment in electrical transmission. We can't expect our already overloaded electrical transmission system to handle the increased demand that will come from a large-scale move to plug-in hybrids. We have to recognize that new transmission lines are needed today and will be even more necessary in the near future.

Making lasting reductions in our dependence on imported oil will require major but essential investments in new technology and new infrastructure. Idaho's elected officials, businesses and research institutions must be prepared to enable and capitalize on those investments.

John Kotek is a principal with Gallatin Public Affairs and heads the firm's energy policy and facility siting group. He is a former deputy director of the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory.

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