Senator lists seven steps toward energy security in 5 years

The US should make plug-in electric vehicles commonplace as one of seven steps toward "clean energy independence" in the next 5 years, US Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said on May 12.

Nick Snow
Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 13 -- The US should make plug-in electric vehicles commonplace as one of seven steps toward "clean energy independence" in the next 5 years, US Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said on May 12.

He also recommended making carbon capture and storage a reality for coal-fired power plants, making solar power costs competitive with power from fossil fuels, developing the technology to safely store and reprocess nuclear waste, making advanced biofuels costs competitive with gasoline, making all new buildings "green," and continuing research into energy fusion.

"It's common sense to deal with both energy supply and demand. If we try to aggressively pursue plug-in electric vehicles, it will require more power. That would require cleaning up many existing coal-fired plants and building new ones in turn, which would mean developing reliable and efficient carbon capture and storage. If the US did that in the next 5 years, it would be our single biggest contribution toward dealing with global climate change because China and other economically emerging countries are building coal-fired power plants," he said.

Alexander, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, conceded that the phrase "energy independence" is held in relatively low regard because it has been the stated goal of politicians from President Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s to members of Congress and the three major presidential candidates in 2008.

But he insisted during an address at the Brookings Institution that nothing short of independence would be worthwhile in dealing with US energy and environmental challenges. "By independence, I do not mean the US would never buy oil from Mexico, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. By independence, I do mean that the US could never be held hostage by any country for our energy supplies. Independence means being able to control our own destiny," he said.

Energy 'Manhattan Project'
Achieving these goals will require a bipartisan effort comparable to World War II's Manhattan Project, which Alexander said both Democrats and Republicans have urged. "It's time to develop the details and start working on it," he maintained.

"The original Manhattan Project had to proceed quickly along several tracks to achieve its goal. It mobilized the brightest scientists from several countries, drafted several large corporations and was run by the Army. That's the sort of focused effort which will be needed to achieve Clean Energy Independence," the senator said.

He indicated that he has discussed the matter with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members, including Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), ranking Minority member Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alas.). Bingaman told him Congress is more likely to pass individual components than a single comprehensive bill, but the components must be closely coordinated, Alexander said.

"Some people say that an election year is a bad time to tackle major issues which require a bipartisan effort. I can't think of a better time. The people didn't elect us to take a vacation from addressing $4/gal gasoline, clean air, climate change, and energy and economic security simply because there's an election in November," he said.

"There are several things we already know how to do, such as drilling an oil and gas well 50 miles offshore without making a major environmental impact, building safer nuclear plants, and increasing motor vehicles' fuel efficiency. Congress demonstrated a bipartisan spirit in making that last area part of the energy bill it passed last year. The American Competes bill, which passed earlier in 2007, is another example," Alexander said.

Idle capacity opportunity
In the 1960s, he continued, H. Ross Perot recognized an opportunity when he learned that commercial banks switched their computers off at closing time each day. He offered to pay the banks for using their computer capacity through the night; then he sold the computer services to various state governments that were looking for more efficient ways to manage their records and services, Alexander said. That was how Perot began to make his fortune, he added.

"The idled computer capacity of the 1960s reminds me of the idled nighttime power plant capacity in the early 21st century," the senator continued. "Studies show that 60% of Americans drive less than 30 miles each day. They could drive a plug-in electric car or truck without using a drop of gasoline."

Electric utilities could offer smart meters that would allow their customers to plug in their cars or trucks for a few dollars nightly in exchange for paying more for electricity between 4 and 10 p.m. when electric grids are busiest, he said. "By some estimates, there is so much idle electric capacity in power plants at night that over time we could replace three fourths of our light vehicles with plug-ins. That could reduce our overseas oil bill from $500 billion to $250 billion and do it without building one new power plant," Alexander said.

Making solar power, biofuels, and other alternatives economically competitive is crucial because consumers can't reasonably be expected to pay premiums to improve the environment, he said. "Corn-based ethanol is being heavily criticized because of its impact on food prices. But there are other crops which could be raised to produce cellulosic ethanol. The focus should be on crops that we don't eat," he suggested.

Developing energy fusion probably is the furthest of his seven goals for "Clean Energy Independence," he said, "but the promise is so fantastic that we should do everything we can to get closer to it in the next 5 years."

Alexander said that bipartisan cooperation is imperative "if we are to think and act big enough to achieve such bold goals. Sending $500 billion a year overseas to pay for oil weakens our dollar. It is half our trade deficit. It is forcing gasoline prices toward $4/gal and crushing family budgets."

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