Increasing energy efficiency and utilizing renewable energy sources are crucial for reducing energy dependence. This implies fundamental changes in the way the United States has approached energy policy: focusing on getting more out of our existing energy stocks and transitioning our reliance for transportation fuel from Middle Eastern deserts to American farmers and to clean, domestically-generated electricity.
Since oil and natural gas are finite resources, it must be a priority to get the most out of them as possible. This means increasing energy efficiency.
The oil shocks of the 1970s led to the introduction of Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFÉ) standards in 1978. These regulations required auto manufacturers to meet certain efficiency levels in terms of miles per gallon of gasoline. As manufacturers came into compliance, foreign imported oil fell as a percentage of total consumption in the U.S. from 47 percent in 1977 to 27 percent in 1985. In addition, the total demand for oil from Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—the cartel largely responsible for manipulating the global oil markets—fell by 13 million barrels per day, or 43 percent, between 1979 and 1983. Unable to maintain demand at the high oil prices it was charging, OPEC was forced to slash its prices. Fuel economy of the combined car and light truck fleet went on to peak in 1987. Unfortunately, fuel efficiency has subsequently declined since it peeked in 1987, as sales of gas guzzling SUVs and other light trucks have increased.
Increasing the fuel economy of the U.S. automotive fleet has the potential to once again reduce reliance on imported oil. The 2007 Energy Bill increased the fuel efficiency of our nation's vehicles for the first time in 32 years. In early 2009, President Obama announced that he would achieve that target by 2016. By 2022, this would have the effect of reducing oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day, or 19 percent over business-as-usual, while also saving Americans over $66 billion. The Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act invests $20 billion to retool America's auto manufacturers to produce electric cars that don't use any gasoline at all.
The 35 mpg goal was calculated by examining the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2002 report that found this efficiency increase could be done in a 10-year timeframe using commercially available technologies and assuming $1.50 per gallon gasoline. However, with the introduction of new hybrid technology, manufacturers are now able to “leapfrog” conventional technologies and realize 25 to 40 percent gains in fuel economy without other changes.
The transportation sector is not the only place that efficiency can help increase our energy independence. We should also focus on ways to increase energy efficiency in our nation’s buildings. Typically, a building consumes 20 percent of its total energy during construction and 80 percent during its use. Energy during construction consists of manufacturing, transporting and assembling materials. Post-construction, buildings consume approximately 40 percent of the energy and 70 percent of the electricity in the United States annually.
Proper building “siting”—determining where a building sits, how it faces the sun, window placement and light design—will impact electric lighting and gas or oil-based heating needs. Proper insulation can reduce the use of oil or gas by ensuring that windows, doors and walls aren’t leaking heated or cooled air. “Energy Star” qualified oil and gas furnaces have annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) ratings of 83 percent and 90 percent, or higher, making them up to 15 percent more efficient than standard models. To calculate your own savings with an Energy Star furnace, click here. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified a wide range of Energy Star rated appliances that can help reduce electricity use, creating a more energy-efficient home or business.
Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFL) light bulbs are a simpler way to improve energy efficiency. Replacing four 100-watt incandescent bulbs that burn four or more hours a day with four 23-watt fluorescent bulbs yields the same amount of light and saves at least 1,356 kilowatt-hours of electricity over three years.
Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology is not yet ready for residential use but has made considerable gains in recent years. LEDs use up to 90 percent less energy than its incandescent counterpart.
Enhancing energy independence can also be achieved through incorporation of readily and domestically available renewable energy sources. Expanding the use of biofuels such as ethanol made from corn, cellulosic material, or crop wastes reduces the need for gasoline made exclusively from petroleum. Under current law, fuel blenders must use 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels in 2012.
Ethanol made from the starch of corn kernels is the primary biofuel in use in the United States today. Besides reducing the demand for oil, ethanol emits fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. But corn will be able to supply only a limited amount of fuel. To replace gasoline and diesel with a significant amount of biofuels and to achieve even greater reductions in global warming pollution, new sources of biofuels must be developed.
Cellulosic ethanol is the next generation of biofuel. It can be made from a wide variety of non-food plant materials, including agricultural wastes such as corn stover and cereal straws, industrial waste like saw dust and paper pulp, as well as dedicated energy crops grown specifically for fuel production like switchgrass. The fuel can be produced in nearly every region of the country because a variety of regional feedstocks can be utilized. Though it requires a more complex refining process that is still being researched, cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and results in a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to traditional gasoline.
Using electricity to power the transportation sector opens the door to renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy. Plug-in hybrid vehicle technology allows a car to be powered by a combination of electric and gas motors. When the electric battery runs low on power or when the vehicle needs rapid acceleration, the car can switch entirely to the gas motor. To recharge the electric battery, the vehicle can recapture lost energy during braking as in current hybrid vehicles or “plug-in” to a conventional electrical outlet to recharge between the morning and evening commute or overnight. As the electricity grid becomes “greener”, the transportation sector would also be able to increasingly incorporate clean renewable energy into its fuel stream. Prototypes, as well as regular hybrids retrofitted with the plug-in hybrid technology, are beginning to hit the roads with fuel efficiency ratings up to 150 miles per gallon.
Renewable energy can also play an important role in replacing fossil fuel use in buildings. Geothermal heating and cooling systems tap into the earth’s natural subterranean heat to maintain steady temperatures in a building. They can reduce and, in some cases, eliminate the use of natural gas to control room temperature. It is estimated that as early as 2025, the United States could have 100,000 Megawatts of energy available though geothermal sources.
An MIT report found that “Geothermal energy from engineered geothermal systems represents a large, indigenous resource that can provide base-load electric power and heat at a level that can have a major impact on the United States, while incurring minimal environmental impacts.”
Solar panels are also a growing energy source for homes, particularly to provide hot water. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), heating water today accounts for up to 14 percent of the average household’s energy use, and nearly four percent of total U.S. energy consumption.
The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) estimates that there are 1.5 million solar water heaters already in use in U.S. homes and businesses, but there is opportunity for that number to increase dramatically. Assuming that 40 percent of existing homes in the United States have sufficient access to sunlight, 29 million solar water-heating systems could be installed.
Depending on location, solar water heaters could meet 50 to 80 percent of a household’s hot water needs.
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