Transition Topic III: Alternative Energy Alternatives

12/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beyond the obvious need for a mighty military, nothing is more important to protecting our long-term national security interests than a healthy environment and abundant clean energy. Dependence on foreign oil from hostile regions is a constant reminder of our vulnerability in the energy sector. We pay to protect our access to oil with the blood of our youth. We endanger the economic security of our sons and daughters by borrowing against their future to pay for the wars in which they now fight. We are fossil fuel junkies, always craving the next oil fix. And like a junkie, we are willing to pay any price for that sweet drug, sacrificing our long-term health for immediate relief.

If oil were nothing but sticky black waste, we would not be anywhere near the hot wastelands of the Middle East, except as necessary to protect Israel. No matter what is said, we are there for oil, and would not be if we had no appetite for crude. With a limited military presence, we would present a much smaller and less attractive target for terrorist propaganda. With no military bases in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden would have been denied his twisted campaign against occupying infidels.

Barack Obama's transition team must tackle our addiction to fossil fuels as a high priority. We have lost eight critical years, and we need to move quickly. We must solve this problem to survive as a viable superpower. The United States consumes 25% of the world's oil supply but boasts only 5% of global reserves. That disparity is a grave threat to our future. Energy independence is the critical key to true national security. Instead of dumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the treasuries of our worst enemies, we would be spending money at home. Instead of fighting wars, we would be building our green economy, creating new jobs and exporting our expertise to the rest of the world. Instead of contributing to climate change, would be solving the problem.

Energy independence is so critically important to our future economic, environmental and military security that we in fact need to invest in alternatives to alternative energy. I have previously written ( how we must move strategically to a hydrogen economy through a transition of wind and solar power. Obama has articulated an energy plan that is consistent with putting America on that path. However, we must have in place contingency plans should mainstream alternative energies not live up to expectations. Failure is not an option here; one way or the other we must become self-reliant for all of our energy needs.

Fortunately, with local ingenuity, global cooperation, and prescient support for basic research from previous administrations, promising leads already exist under the broad category of biofuels. The best known biofuel is of course ethanol. But corn-based ethanol drives up the cost of food, consumes precious agricultural acreage, and requires almost as much energy from fossil fuels as is stored in the alcohol after taking into account driving tractors, making fertilizer and running ethanol production plants. Ethanol saves little oil, and contributes even less to minimizing carbon dioxide emissions. But other "alternative alternatives" show great promise using newly-engineered bacteria and algae.

Scientists are now manipulating bacteria to produce molecules nearly identical to fossil fuels by growing on the sugars found in agricultural waste rather than by fermenting food crops. Commercial success with this approach would solve all the major problems associated with ethanol. We would have no need to occupy scarce agricultural lands to generate the raw materials, and the fuel would not compete with food production or pricing.

Algae represent another promising approach, one entirely independent of traditional agriculture. Microalgae, pond scum to you and me, can double in mass several times per day and can produce more than 15 times as much oil per acre as rapeseed, palms or soybeans. Unlike standard agricultural crops, algae production is continuous. Mature algae are skimmed for use every day, another advantage over crops with one or two annual harvests. With current technology, algal oil is mixed with glycerol or ethanol to produce biodiesel. That does not solve our problem. But scientists are working to engineer algae to produce hydrocarbons directly with no need for post-production mixing. Waste algae can be sold as a high-protein animal feed.

Intriguingly, algae can also be used to produce hydrogen. The fact that pond scum can split water into hydrogen and oxygen has been known for 60 years, but recent breakthroughs have allowed scientists to control the algae's hydrogen yield. Apparently, depriving algae of sulphur at strategic intervals tricks the plant into creating hydrogen for extended periods rather than making oxygen.

In the end, cellulosic and traditional ethanol and algae-based fuels are all forms of solar energy. All require the sun for growth. These present a robust diversity in trapping the sun's energy, and represent a way to use the sun to create fuels appropriate for use in the transportation sector. Photovoltaic technology continues to advance, but the sun is too important to leave to one method of harvesting.

Obama's team would be wise to pursue these alternatives to alternative energy with great vigor. Our national security may well depend on pond scum. None of these technologies is yet ready for prime time, but all have great promise. We cannot afford to let any reasonable pathway to energy independence go unexplored. With Obama's open mind and keen intellect, there is hope that his administration will fund these efforts like our lives depended on it - because they might.