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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Our New Sputnik Moment

Jesse Jenkins and I published two op-eds this week, one in the San Francisco Chronicle and one in the Baltimore Sun, outlining a proposal for a National Energy Education Act:

"An Energy Plan We Can Believe In," San Francisco Chronicle, July 31st.

"Realizing His Vision," Baltimore Sun, July 30th.

Adam Zemel, BTG Fellow, covered the op-eds on the Breakthrough blog. And Genevieve Bennett, BTG Fellow, wrote up a summary of the proposal, including a 2-page fact sheet (PDF).

Here is our piece in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

An energy plan we can believe in
Teryn Norris & Jesse Jenkins
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Energy is now the No. 1 issue in the 2008 elections, with both candidates touting new plans to deal with soaring energy prices. Meanwhile, Congress is at a standstill, arguing over the renewal of critical clean energy incentives and a push for more offshore drilling. But above the partisan cacophony is a proposal all Americans can get behind: a new national education initiative to meet the energy challenge.

The United States is in energy crisis. Oil and electricity prices are rapidly escalating, our dependence on imported energy is increasing, and global warming continues unabated, each presenting grave threats to our national interests and security. Solving these interlinking crises requires large strategic investments to spark a clean energy economy and develop cheap and nonpolluting energy for every American.

But let's pause for a moment to imagine what a clean energy economy would actually look like: tens of thousands of new highly skilled designers and manufacturers reassembling America's auto fleet and producing the next generation of wind turbines and solar panels. An army of new engineers and contractors rebuilding America's electrical grid, erecting wind farms and solar plants, and retrofitting our homes to save on energy costs. Lab researchers inventing cutting-edge, low-carbon energy technologies, which entrepreneurial startups and venture capitalists take into the marketplace.

Now contrast this with today's reality: nearly half of our current energy workforce is expected to retire over the next decade, our manufacturing and construction sectors are in steep decline, and American universities are graduating fewer students each year in the crucial fields of science, mathematics and engineering.

We cannot allow these trends to continue, if we are to confront today's energy crisis. It is imperative that we transform our nation's universities, colleges and vocational schools into multidisciplinary hubs of clean energy innovation that will develop solutions to revitalize our economy, end our dependence on imported oil, and address global warming as well as train a new workforce to develop and deploy low-carbon technology and infrastructure.

Fifty years ago, in the wake of the Soviets' launch of Sputnik, the federal government authorized the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The act provided billions of dollars to inspire and train a generation of Americans to confront the Soviet challenge to win the space race. It was a critical first step toward developing the human capital necessary to put a man on the moon and invent the technologies that catapulted our world into the Information Age.

Just as the National Defense Education Act launched America into the space race, overcoming the energy crisis will require new, large-scale public investments in our nation's schools.

Now is the time for a National Energy Education Act.

Such legislation would expand clean energy education through new research grants, graduate fellowships and energy-science-and-policy-focused curricula; financial aid and loan forgiveness for students entering clean energy development fields; building efficiency, clean energy installation, and green manufacturing workforce development programs; and support for "innovation pipelines" that help commercialize new technologies produced in the laboratory.

How much would it cost? Per year, it would require less than the United States spends daily on foreign oil: $1.5 billion. This would cover half of the tuition every year for nearly 600,000 students at public universities, and over five years it would be proportionate to the total cost of the National Defense Education Act. This program should not occur in a vacuum, of course, but alongside major public and private investments in clean energy technology and infrastructure development. Some of this investment activity is already in place, but much more is necessary and could be funded and incentivized by a modest price on global warming pollution.

Public investment in clean energy education will more than pay for itself, just as the post-Sputnik education programs did in the 1950s and '60s. These programs accelerated technological development and paved the way for the information-age productivity revolution - from microchips and telecommunications to personal computing and the Internet. Today, a National Energy Education Act would equip a new generation of Americans with the highest-caliber human capital, inspire them to tackle energy as their generational undertaking, and pave the way for new industries and technologies that will drive the U.S. economy for decades to come.

Our generation is ready. As two members of the millennial generation and leaders in the youth energy and climate movement, we have seen a hunger for an inspirational vision and purpose for our nation. We simply need our government to embrace this moment and provide the leadership and resources necessary to confront the American energy challenge.

Teryn Norris and Jesse Jenkins are associate directors of Breakthrough Generation, a project of the Breakthrough Institute, working to encourage the nation's leaders to invest in a clean energy future.

For more information:

See the Breakthrough Institute policy fact sheet

See Teryn Norris' and Jesse Jenkins' July 31 op-ed, "An energy plan we can believe in," in the San Francisco Chronicle

See Teryn Norris' and Jesse Jenkins' July 30 op-ed, "Realizing his vision," in the Baltimore Sun

See recent blog posts on why energy education is a good investment and the details of a new National Energy Education Act

Read more!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

PTC extension stalls, the stakes grow higher

Have you called your member of Congress today to say you support clean energy solutions?

Have you asked your networks, friends, and family to do so?

Senate switchboard: 202-224-3121
House switchboard: 202-225-3121

The Senate bill that would have extended renewable energy tax credits stalled AGAIN today when Republicans blocked the measure on the floor. GOP leaders argued for a debate instead on the expansion of offshore oil-and-gas leasing. Hmmmm...

We need reliable, clean new sources of energy, not short-term drilling solutions!

And unfortunately, it seems that the GOP intends to push hard for drilling right now.

Further, rising gas prices combined with the absence of offered alternatives creates increased American support for drilling. According to the Pew Research Center, as of July:

Compared with just a few months ago, many more Americans are giving higher priority to more energy exploration, rather than more conservation. An increasing proportion also says that developing new sources of energy -- rather than protecting the environment -- is the more important national priority.
I find this poll very interesting (and dangerous at the moment) because Americans are demanding new sources of energy, not necessarily drilling. But drilling is being touted as "the solution." With nowhere else to turn it's no wonder that the public is more open to this dirty, short-term solution.

But it does not have to be this way and I think we can actually change the situation relatively easily. Americans are not major proponents of drilling, they are proponents of new energy sources. In the face of alternatives, public support for the dirty same-old, same-old will erode.

We can demonstrate public support for clean energy by calling our Congressional representatives. Sounds small but this simple action can have a real impact.

Have you called your member of Congress today to say you support clean energy solutions? I have. And I hope you will too.

Senate switchboard: 202-224-3121
House switchboard: 202-225-3121

Read more!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

SPECIAL ISSUE: New American Energy Sources

This week, in collaboration with the Breakthrough Generation, Watthead is putting the spotlight on new American energy sources.

By plugging into new, clean energy sources we can re-charge our economy, secure our energy future and win true energy freedom. Transforming our nation's energy system, however, will not occur overnight. Such action will require innovation, investment, and a generational effort. Let us explore the developing technologies that will make the transformation to a sustainable, more just and prosperous future possible!

Why do we need to explore new American energy sources?

Whether you desire to "Drill Here, Drill Now," or harness the power of the sun, it is clear that the United States is in energy crisis.

Energy prices are rapidly escalating, foreign energy dependency is increasing, and global warming continues unabated. As Al Gore recently asserted, "our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges - the economic, environmental and national security crises." The key to solving these crises is the rapid development and deployment of new affordable clean energy technologies and infrastructure.

Read more!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gore Leaves Behind Inconvenient Truths and Issues Inspiring Call for a Clean Energy "Moon Shot"

By Alisha Fowler and Jesse Jenkins

Today, Al Gore became a major ally in the ongoing effort to build consensus around an investment-centered approach to solving our energy crisis and inspiring our nation to tackle the energy challenge as the defining task of our era.

Gore issued a truly ambitious challenge for America "to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years." The organization he leads, the Alliance for Climate Protection, estimates the cost of making such a "moon shot call" a reality at 1.5 to 3 trillion dollars of public and private investment over 30 years. He issued this call to "all Americans - in every walk of life: to our political leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, and every citizen."

We've personally found Gore's mostly fear-based focus on "inconvenient truths" and a politics of personal sacrifice lacked the inspiration and aspirational qualities we hear in the young energy activists and visionary leaders that inspire us on a daily basis. But Gore's bold new take on the energy and climate challenge is the public call we have been issuing ourselves -- and waiting for. The energy challenge can and will be the "lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America," Gore said today. Exactly!

While Gore's rallying cry was strong, the details of his plan remain vague. Perhaps that was his strategy. Gore can be on many teams with the words he used today, at least initially.

What will Gore turn to in order to spark the trillions of dollars of investment this transformation push for a clean energy future will cost? Will he simply call for a more severe and therefore politically untenable carbon tax -- today's speech included language calling for the implementation of a carbon tax -- or will he support a new multi-pronged strategy that would feature investment at its core as well as a lower, politically feasible carbon price. If he chooses the latter, we are united!

What is clear is that Gore's words open up space for the next president to boldly address our energy challenge. Gore's ambitious call for trillions of dollars in investment over 30 years makes a presidential call for government investment of several hundred billion dollars in clean energy technology over ten years seem far more conservative.

While Gore's speech still contained the familiar apocalyptic undertones that pervaded "An Inconvenient Truth," the substance of his speech was truly inspiring. Gore's position has moved from one centered around personal sacrifice and inconvenient truths, to an inspirational call for our nation to band together and tackle our energy challenge head-on.

You can watch Gore's speech on YouTube here and read the full text of his speech here.

Read more!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Electify America: The Coolest Car of the 21st Century Doesn't Go Vroom

Thumbnail image for tesla_stock.jpg
By Helen Aki, Breakthrough Generation Fellow

This post is part of our week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. Stay tuned for more...

The coolest car of the 21st Century doesn't go "vroom!"... goes "whizz!"

Tesla Motors, an innovative electric car start-up straight from the heart of Silicon Valley, is now producing its 2008 Roadster, an all-electric sports car than can go 0 to 60 in under 4 seconds. High-tech and emissions-free, the Roadster celebrates a future that is not only sustainable, but sexy and fun. (Sports car enthusiasts may find it disconcerting, however, that when you hit the gas, the only noise from the engine is an electrical "whizz!")

From Tesla Motor's website:
Most electric vehicles operate under the assumption that driving is merely a necessary evil if you need to get someplace you can't reach on foot or bike. The result has been cars that are designed, built, and marketed in ways that refuse to glorify driving.

We respectfully disagree. We believe driving is exhilarating. Just watch any child on a go-cart and the joy is plain to see. And when you can soar along at top speed, knowing the only oil in the car is in the transmission, the only emissions are the songs from the radio, the ride becomes more enjoyable still.

The lithium-ion battery pack used by Tesla embodies both power and energy, so that the Roadster can accelerate quickly to a top speed of 125 mph, and drive for 220 miles on a single charge. Over 600 orders for the $109,000 model were placed before production even began this year. (So far they've produced 7.)Currently, Tesla is at work on its second-generation model, a sedan called the "Model S" which is anticipated to cost around $60,000. It will directly compete with models like the BMW 5-series and the Audi A6. Tesla's third-generation "Blue Star" model will be a more affordable $30,000, marketed to a wider consumer base.

As GM approaches bankruptcy, and Toyotas and Hondas flood the market, the Model S will quietly present a superior, chique, and all-American alternative. The brainchild of Silicon Valley engineers and innovators who are well-versed in technological excellence, the Model S will be made right here in California. Production was initially scheduled to take place in New Mexico, but thanks to Governer Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a new tax break will relieve Tesla's California production center of sales tax on manufacturing equipment (much to New Mexico's chagrin).

Tesla recently hired former Chrysler engineer Mike Donoughe to oversee production of the Model S, as well as design of the third-generation "BlueStar" model. This fusion of Silicon Valley ingenuity and Detroit expertise will give Tesla a boost towards achieving auto industry credibility.As the dollar crumbles, and the U.S. economy grows ever more dependent on foreign oil (not to mention foreign goods and foreign investment), initiatives like Tesla Motors shine a glimmer of hope and possibility into the doldrums of a modern age. The transportation sector accounts for one third of America's energy usage, and it is almost entirely oil-run.

Electrifying personal transport is a crucial step towards freeing ourselves from oil.

More than that, however, the Tesla represents the American quest for excellence: no complaints or mediocrity, but the creation of something that's simply the best. If Tesla can "glorify driving," America can certainly zoom gloriously into the future. Rather than dragging our heels or kicking and screaming, America can innovate and create its way to the future of our dreams.

And perhaps this is the car we'll be driving into that future!


Read more!

Electrify America: Re-tooling and Re-charging the American Auto Industry

By Jesse Jenkins, Breakthrough Generation Co-Director

This post is part of our week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. Stay tuned for more...

Toyota Motor Company announced today it's intention to retool two U.S. manufacturing plants currently building giant, full-size trucks and SUVs to instead build hybrid-electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford is expected to reveal more details this month on their plans to retool several plants to build the more fuel efficient models they currently sell in Europe.

As automakers scramble to react to rapidly shifting customer preference driven by spiking fuel prices, isn't it time for the United States government to make investments that help re-tool and re-charge the American auto industry?

Toyota's re-tooling plants, announced today, involve opening the first U.S. plant to build their popular hybrid Pruis at a new factory in Blue Springs, Miss. originally intended to assemble sport utility vehicles. The Japanese automaker also plans to immediately halt production of its two largest vehicles, the Tundra pickup and Sequoia sport-utility vehicle, for three months. Next spring, Toyota will consolidate production of the Tundra at one of two U.S. plants that currently manufacture the full-size truck and retool the second plant to produce the hybrid Highlander SUV.

In one of the most dramatic manufacturing transformations in Detroit's history, Ford Motor Company announced plans in June to retool several North American plants to produce smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles the company currently builds in Europe, where Ford is a leader in the small-car segment. This is a necessary but costly process though for the cash-strapped company, and it's unclear how well the American auto giant can weather the transition. Converting a single factory to advanced, flexible manufacturing lines can require up to six months of off-line time and cost $250 million or more!

According to the Detroit News, Ford also plans to thoroughly review its entire product pipeline in North America, hoping to accelerate the introduction of new, more fuel-efficient cars and to build more vehicles on fewer platforms.

These are smart reactions from both companies. Americans are clearly clambering for more fuel efficient vehicles and the waiting list for the Prius and other hybrids is months long. Most importantly, it's clear that the time is now for automakers and policymakers to plan proactively for the future of transportation. And as we've been exploring all week here at WattHead, that future lies in electrifying our cars, trucks and trains.

With the American auto industry reeling and already retooling their plants and strategies, we now have an unprecedented and urgent opportunity to help Re-charge Detroit!

Strategic and timely investments can help cash-strapped automakers get through the expensive but necessary transition to new manufacturing plants ready to churn out advanced hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. By doing so, the federal government has the opportunity to help secure our Energy Freedom at the same time that we help re-vitalize the ailing American auto industry, the economic cornerstone of so many American communities.

A timely investment package could include:

  1. Tax credits or low-interest loans for automakers that retool manufacturing plants to build hybrid-electric, plug-in hybrid or full-electric vehicles or the batteries and other major components of these advanced cars and trucks.

  2. The "Health Care for Hybrids" plan that relieves American automakers of their mounting "legacy" commitments (health care and pensions for retired auto workers) that are as high as $1,500 per vehicle for General Motors. In exchange, participating automakers would make investments in modernizing and retooling plants to build fuel efficient and hybrid vehicles.

  3. Expand and publicize tax credits for consumers who purchase hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars and trucks that have fuel economies at least a certain percentage (40%?) higher than a conventional vehicle in the same class.

  4. Public-private partnerships to develop and refine advanced batteries for hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles and other key advanced vehicle components. The 2007 Energy Bill included some incentives and R&D funds for advanced batteries and advanced light-weight vehicle components, but clearly, fast-tracking advanced vehicle development is a national imperative in today's climate of economic downturn and mounting energy costs.
This is just a quick brain-dump of possible investments that could give Detroit and the auto industry the shot in the arm it needs, re-vitalize our troubled economy, and help secure America's much-needed Energy Freedom. What else can we do to Re-Charge Detroit?

Read more!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Electrify America: Volkswagen's New Plug-In Hybrid is Hot!

By Alisha Fowler, Breakthrough Generation Fellow

This post is part of our week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. Stay tuned for more...

Last week, Volkswagen announced it will roll out a demonstration test fleet of 20 plug-in hybrids by 2010, with plans for mass production soon after. The most exciting part about their announcement is that this electric-diesel beauty will debut in a familiar form: the fast, fun, one might even say flirty, VW Golf.

Finally! Function AND fashion. Now that is something that I feel most consumers can really get behind, and a tactic we must employ in order to create scalable solutions for our energy challenge.

VW says it will debut 20 plug-in hybrids in 2010. They will be outfitted with VW's new drivetrain, the Twin Drive, in a Golf fitted with a 122-horsepower diesel engine and an 82-horsepower electric motor. VW says the car will use lithium-ion batteries and have an all-electric range of 31 miles, after which the diesel engine will kick in. Americans currently make 3.4 vehicle trips per day, many of them less than one mile. For around-town errands, this electric power will suffice and take a huge bite out of total transportation emissions -- and trips to the gas station!

The German government, so enamored with VW’s plan, is also offering the company $23.5 million to help make this electric dream a reality by 2010. Germany's environmental minister, Sigmar Gabriel, says there could be 1 million hybrids on the road in Germany by 2020 and 10 million a decade after that.

VW also recently signed a deal with Sanyo to develop improved lithium-ion batteries, which hopefully means they will not have to be replaced every few years at a relatively high cost to consumers. Sanyo plans to begin production of the batteries next year and says it will spend $769 million on the effort during the next seven years.

I feel that Volkswagen’s efforts are very exciting and they will reward handsomely both in terms of consumer buy-in and emissions reductions. Producing an attractive plug-in hybrid vehicle, one that at least resembles the other cars on the road, is an incredible way to appeal to a broad base of consumers. Not everyone deeply cares about reducing their emissions, but everyone does want to cut down on costs at the pump. And they usually want to look good doing it. We must foster the production of both highly functioning and attractive consumer goods as we look to break our addiction to oil and transform our energy system.

The head of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, says gas and diesel engines will be around for a long time to come, but "the future belongs to all-electric cars." I hope he’s right, and that they come in forms that will appeal to the typical American consumer.

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Electrify China: Street Smarts, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love China

By Genevieve Bennett, Breakthrough Generation Fellow

This post is part of our week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. Stay tuned for more...

There may be a pretty mournful tune coming out of Detroit these days, but over in China, everyone's gone car-crazy. Consider this: in 2000, the private vehicle stock numbered about ten million automobiles. A McKinsey report out in June projects that ten million cars will be sold in 2008 alone. China is now the second-largest automobile market in the world after the U.S.

China's romance with the automobile is reminiscent of America's back in the mid-twentieth century: a personal car means comfort, convenience, and tangible proof of newfound wealth to the millions of Chinese entering the ranks of the middle class (the New York Times ran a piece on this phenomenon back in April). The big difference is that China's car culture is coming of age in a post-cheap oil world.

Two weeks ago the Chinese government hiked gasoline prices (which the state sets) by 16 per cent, as the global price of oil continues to hover around record levels. A gallon of subsidized gas now costs around $3.83 in China. If this sounds pretty good to you, note that the GDP per capita there is about $2,000 a year.

And of course, as we know all too well, more cars on the road can mean spiraling pollution and deepening dependence on fossil fuels. China's appetite for oil has already led its government to rub shoulders with such unsavory partners as Sudan. Pollution in China is a horrific problem. The IEA has projected that there will be seven times as many cars on the road in 2030 as there are today. Even given that China's fuel standards are way higher than our own, that's still a lot of oil and pollution.

Now, we can lament this trend - and many have. Or we can think about ways in which it presents opportunities. China might be a great candidate for leapfrogging technologies - that is, skipping over intermediate generations of technology and moving directly to the cutting edge. The rapid spread of mobile phones in developing countries is a good example. People are benefiting from the communications revolution despite their countries not having made expensive investments in fixed-line phone infrastructure. Could China leapfrog straight to new, more environmentally friendly technologies for automobiles?

There are reasons to hope that China will learn from our mistakes and take steps to encourage research, development, and deployment of high-fuel economy, low-emissions vehicles. The Chinese government has already put a few policies in place to try to deal with pollution and to slow growing consumption of oil. The government will start offering a tax incentive for environmentally friendly vehicles, which will lower their price by about 10%. Fuel economy standards, as I've noted, are already more stringent in China than in the U.S. and are set to be tightened further. The Chinese standards are also "bottom heavy" - the biggest improvements are being demanded of the larger, most inefficient vehicles, which in theory should discourage infiltration by SUVs into the vehicle stock.

Further opportunity lies in the fact that with sales slackening in the US and Japan, car makers are scrambling to produce in and sell to China. "These developing markets used to be an afterthought. Now they are the industry's future," says Hirofumi Yokoi, an analyst for auto market research company CSM Worldwide. Toyota, for example, plans to start manufacturing hybrid versions of its Camry model in Guangdong province, with an eye to accessing the Chinese market.

As a place where automakers are eager to both manufacture and sell cars, China has some leverage over what its car culture ends up looking like. Will the Chinese government and Chinese consumers choose to demand more efficient, low-emissions vehicles, given their concerns over pollution and oil dependency? Do they have another choice?

For OEMs (original equipment manufacturers, shorthand in the auto industry for the big brand name manufacturers like GM, Toyota, or Volkswagen), this could be a great opportunity to improve cleaner car technology and even to commercialize the next generation of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). China's market is large enough to realize the learning potential of new technologies. Car ownership is still relatively low. 24 out of every 1000 people in China own a car, compared to about 800 out of every 100 in the U.S. Capital stock is also low - new plants can be built ready to roll out the next generation of technology, rather than old plants needing to be retrofitted. Given the low cost of producing in China and the learning curve afforded by the potential size of the market, China could very well be a key to driving down the price of cleaner cars to parity with traditional models.

Clearly, commercializing low-emission and PHEV technology is an international priority. Equally clear, I think, is that the Chinese will be a lot more receptive to international cooperation on technological innovation than pressure to sign on to emissions targets. And given that the Chinese appetite for personal automobiles continues to grow, we should think about ways to ensure that they're getting the technology they need to make all those new cars as green as possible. The trick is to find innovative, equitable, and effective ways to support mechanisms enabling technology transfer, joint ventures that build a base of knowledge and physical capital in China, and international cooperation on basic research, development, and deployment.

A few caveats: the Chinese government needs to be willing to negotiate on lowering the barrier to market entry for foreign automakers, make their joint venture requirements less stringent, and improve safety standards in their automobiles to make them ready for export. OEMs must take seriously the need to ensure that knowledge and skills are transferred, and to guarantee the same labor and safety standards in their Chinese factories which they uphold at home. And national governments need to work together to provide the right incentives to see cleaner cars effectively commercialized by the private sector, including transition incentives, support for R&D, smart institutions and mechanisms that foster innovation and tech transfer, and dealing with international intellectual property rights issues fairly (this is a post for another day, I think).

So as terrifying as the prospect of even more traffic in Beijing may be, all those cars represent millions of people's aspirations and we'd do well to respect that. The whole world can benefit from a sustainably developed China. So what are some smart ways we can encourage it? China's demand for cars might offer one opportunity for international cooperation on a really significant tech breakthrough. Let's be on the lookout for more.

Read more!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Electrify America: The Founders Were Right, Let's Look to France!

By Zach Arnold, Breakthrough Generation Fellow

This post is part of our week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. Stay tuned for more...

"The French are most advanced in all manner of Arts, and refined Conversation, and in the Use of electric Cars." - Thomas Jefferson, personal correspondence, 1786*
In honor of Independence Day, let's take a moment here to reflect on two of our greatest Founding Fathers - Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Ben Franklin
thomas jefferson
The men themselves

Brilliant and energetic men, Franklin and Jefferson were responsible for some of the greatest advances of their time, such as bifocals and the armonica. And the Declaration of Independence. What's more, these two giants of American history shared an abiding love and respect for France. Having served as America's ministers to France in the late 1700s, both saw Paris's grandeur firsthand, and saw in its creativity and intellectual ferment a model for their own fledgling nation.

Jefferson and Franklin knew where to look for good ideas - and even today, France continues to provide a model for American policy. How so, you ask? WITH THE WORLD'S FIRST ELECTRIC CAR SHARING SCHEME, THAT'S HOW. Building on the success of Paris' Vélib bike sharing program, Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë has announced Autolib, a program that will provide 4,000 electric vehicles (EV's) for use by Parisians.

The system will allow users to reserve cars and parking spaces online, or simply pick a parked EV up on a whim. Parking and recharging points will be spread throughout the city and suburbs, allowing a range of movement that considerably exceeds Vélib's. And payment is a snap, as customers can pay through a monthly subscription, a one-time fee, or with a standard city transit pass. It sounds, in other words, like American services like Zipcar, but cleaner and more accessible - and, potentially, a great demonstration of the usefulness of EV's, in urban areas and beyond.

As inventors, social innovators, and Francophiles, Jefferson and Franklin would surely be proud - and unsurprised - to see that France is today's leader in electric car sharing innovation. Hopefully today's American policymakers will emulate our Founding Fathers, who looked to France for inspiration. In the meantime, we can keep enjoying the other things we've received from France, like wine and unintelligible philosophy. Vive la France!

*not really!

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Electrify America: Re-charge Detroit

By Rachel Barge, Breakthrough Generation Fellow

This post is part of our week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. Stay tuned for more...

In a city known for hardcore rock and hardcore auto manufacturing, some serious blues are the music of the week. Detroit, whose top 3 automakers have been closing plants left and right in the face of skyrocketing gas prices, is looking for a quick fix to a 10 year strategical failure. The NY Times grimly reported:

"G.M. is temporarily halting the assembly lines at seven truck factories in North America before closing four plants permanently within the next three years... Sales were down 28 percent at the Ford Motor Company, 18 percent at General Motors and Nissan. Hardest hit was Chrysler, whose sales fell 36 percent after it discontinued some models in a bid to increase profit margins. Ford says it will build 25 percent fewer vehicles and that it now expects to lose money in 2009, the year it had set as a deadline for returning to profitability."

How did American automakers fail? To par it down to a simple answer: GM, Ford and Chrysler built cars that Americans wanted in the moment (when gas was cheap and abundant), while Japanese Toyota and Honda built cars based on what they knew consumers would want in the future (taking into account peak oil / inevitable gas price increases). So now Toyota is selling Priuses at record rates and re-investing the profits in continued R&D for more efficient batteries, and Detroit automakers have gigantic SUV's gathering dust on the lot.

Unless the USA is content letting Japan beat us silly in the global auto industry, we need a plan to re-charge Detroit, the hot seat of American manufacturing jobs.

Chevy volt concept car

General Motors is taking a crack at task with the 2010 Chevy Volt (pictured above). The Volt is heralded by some as having the potential to lead an American shift to efficient, sexy PHEVs as a way to save Detroit from mess it's in. A recent Washington Post blog, however, claims that it's too little too late - that American auto-makers are too far behind, and that a massive Japanese take-over of Detroit auto companies is inevitable. And in a sense, they're right - U.S. automakers, acting alone, have been (and will likely continue to be) too slow to take the visionary steps that will secure green vehicle markets of future.

But is there any way to save Detroit Rock City? I think so. Strategic government investment (like Australia is doing) and incentives for retooling manufacturing plants could jump-start the U.S. auto industry, in the same way we cranked out entirely new WWII manufacturing for tanks and planes in a matter of months. These companies face adapting or dying out, and apparently require some financial pushing to see the light.

And what could be a more prudent investment? After all, these are the electric cars and trucks that all of us - all 300 million in the U.S. - will be driving in the future, not to mention China, India and Brazil's skyrocketing demand. America can save and actually expand our auto industry jobs if we think strategically about the future - and put our federal money where our mouth is. It basically depends how bad we want it.

Some may say the American auto industry is a lost cause, but I think it's fundamental to our economy and our culture. We are the inventors, the leaders, and the spreaders of great technology around the globe. Given our perch on the edge of a recession, I don't want to see America make the unnecessary fall from innovative global leader to mediocre trend follower, and more middle-class Midwest families losing their jobs. I know we can do better. What we need is the visionary leadership and funds to help American automakers reach their potential as global green vehicle futurists.

Just think - an electrified Detroit, pumping out the world's best electric cars and manufacturing the solar panels that will power them on top of it. That's the stuff that will get the American economy going and thrust us back into the global auto sphere. So come on Detroit, get rockin!

Read more!

SPECIAL ISSUE: Electrifying Transportation

This week, WattHead, in conjunction with the Breakthrough Blog, is launching a week-long Special Issue exploring ways to sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. By plugging in to new, clean American energy sources we can re-charge our economy, secure our energy future and win true Energy Freedom.

Links to posts in the series are below the fold...

Read more!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Drilling Into Energy Independence

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Blog...

Another July 4th has come and gone, accompanied by the usual cries for a new "Declaration of Energy Independence." Continuing a longstanding tradition hearkening back to the 1970s -- the last time both energy prices and American concern with our energy future were as high as they are now -- the punditry and politicos again used Independence Day to declare that the time is now to secure our independence from foreign oil.

Unfortunately, while perennially popular, the tired political narrative of energy independence is stuck in the past, rooted three decades ago in the oil shocks of my parent's youth and resting on a fatally flawed diagnosis of our energy ailments. What we need isn't another call for independence from foreign oil. What we need is a new American energy agenda that secures our Energy Freedom -- one that recognizes that to become truly independent from foreign oil we must free ourselves from oil. Period.

Let's be clear: our growing reliance on imported oil is a problem. At $140 per barrel (today's trading price for crude), the nearly 12 and a half million barrels of oil we import each day to slake our oil thirst sucks over $635 billion out of our economy every year. The cost of oil imports are the largest contributor to our ballooning national trade deficit. It's clearly better for the US economy to spend more money here at home than on importing oil from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.

So oil imports are a problem. But they are hardly the fundamental problem.

To drill deeper into the challenge of our oil addiction, we must first understand one key concept: oil is a globally-traded fungible commodity. Its price is set on global markets by the highest bidders. Replacing foreign oil with domestic oil will therefore do nothing to solve the most fundamental problems of our oil addiction.

Unless we can produce enough new oil to make a globally significant difference in the balance of supply and demand, the American economy will remain shackled by the dead-weight of soaring oil prices.

Consider the fact that until very recently, the United Kingdom was 100 percent energy independent, a net oil exporting nation, thanks to their abundant North Sea oil fields. That didn't shield the Brits from rising oil prices which spiked fast enough in 2000 to incite truckers to strike and blockade oil refineries in protest.

With oil prices set on a global market, the only way more drilling in domestic oil fields will affect the price we pay at the pump is if we produce globally significant quantities of oil.

For example, the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps our largest reserve of untapped domestic oil reserves, is the focal point for routine calls for increased domestic oil production couched in appeals to increase American energy independence and cut prices at the pump. However, opening ANWR to oil extraction would shave just 1-3.5 cents of the price of a gallon of oil once crude begins flowing a decade from now, according to the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. If we go on the drilling binge the "Drill Here, Drill Now" campaign is calling for and tap perhaps five or six ANWRs worth of new domestic oil supplies, we'll be saving 5-20 cents a gallon at the pump.

A few nickles saved at the pump will hardly secure our economy's independence from the burdens of high oil prices. Gas prices are far past $4.00 per gallon nationally. And then there's that giant sucking sound that is the growing Chinese and Indian demand for oil that will all but ensure that prices rise much, much higher before the first drops of new oil begins to flow from American oilfields.

In short, unless we are willing to make our oil fields state-owned resources and set price controls on domestic oil prices - a very un-American thing to do! - the price we pay at the pump will not be significantly affected by how much oil we import or produce domestically. There may be other reasons we might want to expand domestic oil production, but let's be absolutely clear-eyed about this: we really cannot drill our way to energy independence.

Likewise, we cannot drill our way to lasting national security. We haven't imported a drop of oil from Iran in more than two decades. We import far more oil from our friendly neighbors, Canada and Mexico, than we do from Kuwait or Iraq. Yet that hasn't prevented Iran from playing the oil card every time the Ayatollah feels threatened or kept us out of repeated wars in the Middle East. Until we sever our dependence on oil entirely, mighty America will be at the whim of petty petro-dictators.

Clearly foreign versus domestic oil has little bearing on the environmental consequences of our oil addiction either, including global warming. A gallon of gas from Texas releases essentially the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions or harmful pollutants as a gallon of gas from light sweet Saudi crude. Domestic oil does nothing to help stabilize the climate or clean the air we breathe.

The fundamental problem of our oil addiction is not a lack of energy self-sufficiency, as the tired rhetoric of "Energy Independence" calls to mind. Rather, the core challenge we face today is a lack of choice -- and perhaps "Energy Freedom" is the appropriate term to invoke as we strive to rise to this challenge.

Mobility and transportation are essential to our modern, globalized, interconnected economy. And yet the transportation sector is almost entirely reliant on oil, which makes up more than 90% of the energy we use to get around.

Want to get to work, pick up the kids from school, or visit grandma's house? You have essentially no choice but to fill 'er up. Want to purchase the raw materials for your factory or farm or ship the finished goods to customers? You've got to use oil, whether you ship by train, plane or truck.

When it comes to oil, there simply are no substitutes, and therein lies the problem. Our economy, our security, our climate and our health will never be free from the costs of oil addiction until we provide true Energy Freedom: we need to provide drivers, for the first time since the dawn of the American car era, with true freedom of choice as to what fuel they use to drive their cars. And that will require us to sever our dependence on oil. Period.

This week, the Breakthrough Blog and WattHead will feature a number of posts - at least one a day - that explore ways in which we can sever the link between transportation and oil by electrifying transportation. By plugging America in to new, clean American energy sources we can re-charge our economy, secure our energy future and win our true Energy Freedom. Stay tuned...

[I would be remiss if I didn't offer a hearty hat tip to David Sandalow and his excellent and easy-to-read primer on America's oil addiction and the solutions that will secure our
Freedom From Oil. Sandalow's insights are central to this post and I highly recommend his book for those intruiged and interested in exploring this fundamental challenge to American prosperity.]

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Some Refreshing Common Sense! BLM Removes Solar Roadblock

Well ask and you shall receive I guess...

On monday, my colleague and I called on the federal Bureau of Land Management to stop being an Energy Delayer and lift a moratorium that locked up the vast reserves of solar energy located on federal lands. Today, the BLM announced that they would lift the planned twenty-two month moratorium on land it stewards in six southwest states rich in solar energy. The BLM had claimed that an extensive environmental impact review was necessary before solar development on federal lands could move forward and called for the moratorium on May 29th.

Today's refreshingly smart move from the federal government clears the way for over 130 solar energy development projects already submitted to the BLM to move forward and opens up the possibility of further development of this untapped and vast American energy resource.

"We heard the concerns expressed during the scoping period about waiting to consider new applications," BLM Director James Caswell said in a statement, "and we are taking action. By continuing to accept and process new applications for solar energy projects, we will aggressively help meet growing interest in renewable energy sources, while ensuring environmental protections."

I'd love to think my blogging had something to do with this, but there were plenty of voices that arrived at the same conclusion Helen and I did. Among those calling for an end to the insane moratorium on solar development was Senate Majority Leader and solar-rich Nevada's senator, Harry Reid who I imagine might be slightly more influential than this blogger...

Either way, it's clear that as the price of oil continues to rise, buoying inflation and economic insecurity along with it, the time is now to tap our vast reserves of abundant renewable energy and develop the clean and cheap new American energy sources that will power the 21st Century.

So wether it's the Bush Administration, Congressional demogauges or NIMBY enviros, we can't afford to let Energy Delayers stand in the way of a new American energy future.

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