Transition Topic II: Energy Independence

12/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Schweitzer Scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in neurophysiology

Like a breath of fresh air, president-elect Obama clearly understands the urgency of climate change. Unlike his soon-to-be predecessor, a North Pole free of summer ice actually gives Obama pause. He intends to act appropriately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also speaks eloquently about the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and increase investments in renewable energies. Those positions on climate and energy are fortunate, because one informs the other, and neither can be achieved alone. The times demand that we stop speaking of energy independence and global warming as if the two were separate problems amendable to isolated solutions. Each represents one side of a single coin, forever joined together by the demands of economy and nature.

Obama goes further than any president in his commitment to address these problems. But he does not go far enough if we take a truly long-term view, as we must. Based on what we can reasonably anticipate Obama will support in his first term, we can suggest how his agenda can create the foundation for more ambitious, but critically needed actions.

Obama's Program

From his campaign speeches and literature, we can plausibly assume that Obama will institute early on some form of cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. He knows that we must marshal market forces to the task if we hope to succeed. The stated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.

Obama rightfully opposes reprocessing nuclear fuel, or storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Until we solve the waste storage problem, nuclear energy is not a viable option, no matter how attractive the atom may be as an energy source free of carbon pollution.

He supports the creation of a $150 billion "green technologies fund" some portion of which he will devote to clean coal and carbon sequestration technologies. This fund will also support entrepreneurial advances in wind, solar and geothermal energy. His goal is to generate 10% of all electricity from renewables by 2012, and 25% by 2025.

In the transportation sector, some resources from the green fund will support research and development of cellulosic ethanol fuels. In addition, Obama will create a new $7,000 tax credit for purchasing advanced vehicles, and get 1 million made-in-America plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015.

He will promote conservation, energy efficiency, and credits to weatherize 1 million homes annually. Obama will institute a "use it or lose it" program for existing oil and gas leases to encourage oil companies to explore and drill in areas already designated for that purpose.

Beyond Obama's Program

All the elements embedded in Obama's energy program make good sense, and deserve our enthusiastic support. But wind, solar and geothermal energy are not the ultimate endpoint. All of these programs will, in the end, only be useful if viewed as transitional to a hydrogen economy. Yes, in the short-term, we absolutely must tap all available renewables, and natural gas, to bridge the yawing gap between our current dependence on fossil fuels and a future of unlimited clean energy.

We already see the ultimate solution to meeting the energy demands of a growing global population while eliminating greenhouse gases: using solar and wind energy to power homes and factories and to electrolyze water to create hydrogen, which will power our cars and trucks. When fully in place, this energy sector will be clean, with nearly zero emissions, limitless and inexpensive.

The technologies exist, but are not yet sufficiently developed to make widespread implementation economical. And that is precisely where the government comes into the picture. Moving to a hydrogen economy is a big task, but is on a scale no grander than what has been done before.

The largest public works project in human history was initiated by President Eisenhower in the early 1950s to construct a national system of interstate and defense highways, now more commonly known as the Interstate Highway System. One purpose initially was to ensure that the military could readily transport materiel and troops from one coast to the other. Civilians immediately became the dominate users. These nearly 50,000 miles of road transformed the economy and culture of the United States, and raised public expectations about an optimistic future. The net cost to the federal government was about $140 billion by the time the system was deemed complete in the mid 1970s. Compare this to the $700 billion package to bail out Wall Street, which will bequeath to us no infrastructure development at all.

With an investment similar in scope to the bailout, and an infrastructure program considerably less ambitious than Eisenhower's, we could shift our economy from oil to hydrogen within a decade. Consider the enormous national security and environmental implications.

The role of government is to overcome three significant barriers to success. The first is the question of who goes first. Nobody wants to install a national network of hydrogen filling stations if no cars are made to run on hydrogen. But no automaker wants to build hydrogen cars without a national network of service stations already in place. Solving that problem will require government guarantees and tax incentives. The second is the need, initially, to subsidize the price of hydrogen cars with tax credits to make them economically viable in small numbers as they first come off the line. Over time, hydrogen vehicles should be cost competitive with traditionally fueled autos when produced in large numbers. The third is to fund research and development to improve the efficiency and lower the cost of solar and wind technologies to enable the cheap production of hydrogen using these renewable and clean energy sources.

The government's investment to transform the United States into a leading green economy of the 21st century is rather small compared to the staggering benefits. Outside of direct expenditures on our military, nothing could be more important to our national security. We would wean ourselves from foreign oil, relegating the Middle East to nothing but a distant tourist attraction. We would nearly eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the energy and transportation sectors, finally tackling the problem of global warming in a meaningful way. We would ensure that we become the primary exporter of green technologies to the rest of the world. We would have cheap abundant energy to fuel a growing economy.

We can do this, but must keep our eye on the ball. As Obama moves to implement his energy program, we should have in mind a hydrogen economy as the final objective. That goal clearly defined will help guide the energy decisions we make over the next 10 years.