BY MODESTO MAIDIQUE
AND GEORGE PHILIPPIDIS
Special to The Miami Herald
For anyone who thinks a $700 billion bailout is a lot of money for Americans to commit to this economic rescue plan, consider this: In this country, we spend about that much on foreign oil every single year. And what do we have to show for it?
Over the past 30 years, our dependence on foreign oil has perilously increased from 20 percent to 62 percent, giving OPEC enormous leverage over U.S. policy. Cheap gasoline in the United States (half of what Europeans pay) for years has fueled our disregard for energy conservation and efficiency. While other nations not as rich as the United States have been pursuing alternative forms of energy — such as biofuels, solar, wind and nuclear — we have been treating energy as an issue of secondary importance. As developing countries consume more of the world’s oil production and new oil discoveries flatten, the United States is facing a dan-gerous situation with regard to its energy security.
The only way to secure America’s future is by aggressively increasing the nation’s fuel efficiency while investing in domestic fuel and energy sources as soon as possible. It is a matter of national security and should be treated as such — nothing less than a new Manhattan project. We are the world’s leader in research and inge-nuity, but we lack a long-term vision and, so far, the political will to implement energy diversification regardless of the price of oil.
THOSE LEADING WAY
Brazil is a prime example of the opposite: A country with a fraction of ourresources has achieved fuel diversity and even self-sufficiency. Since the 1970s, it has instituted a long-term policy of ethanol and flexi-ble-fuel vehicle production, allowing its citizens to choose their fuel among etha-nol, gasoline and natural gas. It was not easy, but govern-ment and the private sector worked together despite eco-nomic and political chal-lenges.
Similarly, large European countries like Germany and Spain are on their way to making biofuels, solar and wind energy a major compo-nent of their energy portfo-lios. The United Kingdom is tapping ocean energy, while over half of France’s electric-ity comes from nuclear energy. A combination of tax incentives and greenhouse-gas emission mandates have led to widespread adoption
of renewables in Europe.
A PLACE TO START
The United States is by far the world’s largest importer and consumer of oil. Our transportation sector burns 10 million barrels of gasoline a day, an amount almost equal to all of the oil we import. Our goal should not be to simply replace oil with another single fuel, but rather to introduce a variety of alternatives to oil. We have a number of options at our disposal. First and fore-most, we should start with biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. The most signifi-cant domestic source of these fuels is abundant, inedible and inexpensive biomass — plant material such as wood waste, corn stover, wheat straw, sugar cane bagasse and yard waste. Although great technical progress has been achieved to date, a long-term policy that makes bio-fuels a top national priority will attract private invest-ment to accelerate their com-mercialization in the next five years.
At the same time, U.S. energy policy should boost investment in automotive technologies that enhance fuel economy, regardless of the fuel used, and reduce emissions of climate-chang-ing gases. More than 70 per-cent of Americans drive under 25 miles a day, which can be readily accommo-dated with newly developed plug-in rechargeable batter-ies, while longer distances can be powered by biofuels. Such a combination of new technologies could drop our gasoline use by as much as 75 percent within 10 years, significantly freeing the United States from its oil dependence once and for all.
The government should not dictate which biofuelsand automotive technologies should make it to the com-mercial arena — this should be left to market forces. However, since energy secu-rity is of national importance, the government should man-date that all new vehicles be made fuel-flexible, no longer limiting us to the use of only oil products. Financial incen-tives should be provided directly to U.S. consumers to switch to flex-fuel and plug-in hybrid vehicles. It is criminal to send billions of dollars every year to rogue oil-producing nations, when we can spend a fraction of that amount to help Ameri-can consumers change their habits and stop this monu-mental hemorrhage of national wealth.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The road to energy inde-pendence will be fraught with difficulties. It will takevision , execution and patience. But above all, it will take political will to turn the United States into an econ-omy that is fueled by a diverse array of energy sources and is no longer hos-tage to oil. Fuel and energy diversity — biofuels frombiomass, solar, wind, nuclear and others — will lead to price competition benefiting the U.S. consumer and help usher the country into an era of long-term energy and national security.
Dr. Modesto Maidique is president of Florida Interna-tional University, co-author of ‘‘Energy Future,’’ a New York Times best seller, and has served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board. Dr. George Philippidis is energy director at FIU and an expert in energy and biofuels with experience in both the private and public sectors.