08/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

United We Stand; Divided We're Falling

Sadly, in the way that matters, and in the place that matters, our energy policy is running in place instead of moving forward. This morning a new study from U.C. Berkeley was released that lays out a clear path to an electric-vehicle fleet. Simply creating an infrastructure that allows plug-in hybrid drivers to swap out their batteries when they need a charge would make electric cars so much cheaper to operate that by 2030 their market share would rise to between 64 and 87 percent.

This transition would have enormous benefits:

  • A net gain of up to 350,000 new jobs by 2030 through electric-vehicle adoption.
  • Emission reduction of as much as 62 percent from 2005 levels.
  • Savings of up to $205 billion on healthcare costs associated with emissions from combustion-engine vehicles.
  • A decline in oil imports of up to 3.7 million barrels per day -- equivalent to the amount currently imported daily from the Persian Gulf region and Venezuela.

Yet this opportunity is likely to have almost no impact on the current energy policy debate in Congress. I'll get to where, why, and how in a moment.

Americans are champing at the bit for this kind of change. Main Street gets it. We know that the world will move on past coal and oil and, if America does not lead the parade to a new energy future, then America will follow, not lead, the world. Poll after poll shows that huge public majorities understand that creating a new energy economy that uses 21st century technology is the key not only to stabilizing our climate but also to enhancing our national security, rebuilding our industrial job base, balancing our trade deficit, improving the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, and resuming our role as the most innovative society on earth.

States that are red, blue, and purple have been innovating. Businesses are getting ready for the future. We now have a new administration that has embraced the entrepreneurial opportunity offered by a new, clean energy economy. Science is once again welcome in the Oval Office.

So why do I lament that, even as Congress debates our energy future, this extraordinary study from Berkeley will likely have almost no impact on those deliberations?

Because what we need is a national electric-vehicle infrastructure. We are, after all, one nation. But not when it comes to energy policy. Congress continues to see energy policy as a regional fight about divvying up market share among oil, coal, and nuclear. Congress still acts as if mining and producing fuel were the heart of America's energy economy -- when the reality is that we are no longer the world's major oil producer. For most Americans, the jobs they have and the jobs they want depend on new technologies for using energy -- not on old technologies for mining fuels.

Health care is a very hard issue. There's no easy economic solution. But at least Congress understands that health care is a national issue. By comparison, energy is actually a very easy issue. We know what to do, how to do it, and that, if we do it quickly, we'll be much richer. But instead of focusing on the national benefits that an electric-vehicle system would provide in terms of dollars saved, carbon avoided, and barrels of oil not imported, Congress worries more about which states will get to make the batteries.

It's this regional thinking that makes energy appear to be, politically, the harder issue -- even though Americans themselves are much more united about what our energy future should look like than we are about how to redesign health care.