Energy Alternatives, Energy Independence, Reducing Fossil Fuel Use

Beyond Fossil Fuels

The subject of energy is front-page news these days because of two huge challenges: oil dependency and global warming.

Sometimes they seem so big, so daunting and so complicated that many people throw up their hands and walk away.

But admitting defeat is not an option. And it doesn't have to be an option. Not since the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970's have the times been more propitious for a major shift in the way America uses energy.

Thirty years of research at the private and government level, here and abroad, have produced a range of new technologies that can help turn abundant energy sources - wind, biomass, solar, even water itself - into alternative fuels. These fuels, in turn, can help keep our cars running and our power plants humming, while reducing both our reliance on unstable Middle Eastern oil producers and our contributions to dangerous climate change.

Some of these technologies are in their infancy; others, if not wholly mature, are at least frisky teenagers. Global wind generation, for instance, has more than tripled in the last five years alone (PDF). The price of solar power has dropped dramatically. The production of fuel ethanol doubled between 2000 and 2005 , and it could double again in the next three years.

Overall, renewable energy sources - mainly hydropower - provide just over six per cent of total U.S. energy, and about 10 percent of our electric power. But as technology improves and the price of conventional fuels like oil and natural gas skyrockets, newer forms of energy will become increasingly competitive and, inevitably, increasingly important.

Even so, bringing these technologies into the commercial mainstream, where they can make a real difference, will require public and private money and, particularly in the United States, a sense of urgency and a great deal of political will.

The inertia in the present energy delivery system is staggering. The infrastructure is huge and it has been constructed at great cost. Its basic ingredients - the millions of cars and trucks and the many thousands of power plants that deliver electricity - have been built pretty much the same way for years and years. Turning things around will not be easy.

But turn they must, and soon. As the Arab oil shocks 30 years ago demonstrated, as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 confirmed, and as $2.50 gasoline reminds us almost daily, our continuing dependence on the politically fragile nations that control most of the world's oil reserves jeopardizes our national