On the Road to Energy Independence

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Photo courtesy of Honda Motor Sales
Thanks to recent legislation, future vehicles will be more efficient, which means savings at the pump for all of us.  

Over the past year, Congress has spent a lot of time debating energy policy, a topic loaded with heated issues such as climate change and foreign oil. The final result of months of negotiation is the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which became law in December. For environmentalists, the law offers some good news, but leaves a lot of unfinished business. Here’s a quick look at what made it in, what got left out, and how close it comes to real energy independence and security.

Finally, better fuel economy!

For the first time in more than 30 years, Congress has raised the fuel economy standard for cars and trucks.

The specifics: The law raises the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard by more than 10 miles per gallon (mpg) to 35 mpg by the year 2020. This will bring the U.S. standard closer to those of other industrialized nations, though it’s still not as advanced as the standard set by the European Union, which is equivalent to 40 mpg.

What it means to you: The gas mileage of many models will have to improve, and new cars with better fuel economy will soon be available. It won’t happen all at once, but as existing models are redesigned, improvements will make them efficient enough to meet the new goals.

Some in the auto industry claim the new standard will raise vehicle costs by as much as $6,000 per vehicle. But James Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says UCS calculates it will cost an average of about $1,500 per vehicle to get to 35 mpg. The good news is that increase will be offset by fuel savings.

And fuel savings add up quickly. UCS estimates that by 2020, when all automakers have met these standards, it will save 1.1 million barrels of oil per day, about half what the United States currently imports from the Persian Gulf. That’s not all we need to do to address concerns about climate change and declining supplies of oil, Kliesch says, but it’s “an important first step.”

More and better biofuels.

Despite controversy about the ultimate sustainability of fuels made from corn and soybeans, the new energy bill will increase production of biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

The specifics: The new law bolsters the U.S. renewable fuels standard. It gradually increases the minimum amount of biofuels that must be produced in the United States from 9 billion in 2008 to 36 billion by 2022. A large portion of those new fuels must come from “advanced” biofuels, defined as those that cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent.

What it means to you: Biofuels will be much more widely available. If you’re new to these fuels, you’ll want to learn more about which are compatible with your vehicle before  filling the tank. In general, diesel engines can burn biodiesel, and gas engines can burn ethanol, but some vehicles can handle higher concentrations than others.

The social and environmental questions about biofuels are complex. Concerns include the amount of water and fuel consumed by growing corn for ethanol, and rising food prices as food crops such as corn and soybeans are used to make fuel. (For more information, see “Biofuel Production is Increasing Food Prices.”)

The good news is that the new law favors advanced biofuels. UCS Clean Vehicles Washington representative Eli Hopson says these cleaner fuels will make a greater contribution to combating global warming, and meeting the requirements will encourage technological innovation. “For the time frame we’re looking at, those are pretty aggressive targets,” he says. More good news is that some advanced biofuels, such as ethanol from switchgrass and biodiesel from algae, may not compete directly with food crops the way corn-based ethanol does.

More energy-efficient appliances, but what about incentives for solar and wind?

The energy bill that passed focused mainly on transportation. Many earlier versions of the bill were broader, and included both higher standards for energy efficiency and strong incentives to develop wind and solar power. The energy-efficiency measures survived, but after veto threats from the White House, the provisions to support electricity from renewable sources were left out of the final bill, despite broad public support.

The specifics: The new law includes higher efficiency standards for many products, including significant increases for light bulbs. Of the provisions cut from the bill, the one of greatest concern was renewal of the tax credits that are helping build new wind and solar power plants. Also left on the cutting room floor was a national renewable electricity standard, which would have required utilities to provide more energy from solar and wind sources.

What it means to you: The new energy bill was a lost opportunity to develop the wind and solar industries, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create numerous high-paying green jobs. “If the tax credits are not extended, private capital will be directed elsewhere,” says Scott Sklar, an energy analyst with The Stella Group. “The solar and wind industries in particular will severely contract and we could lose more than 100,000 jobs.” He explains that on previous occasions when these tax credits were allowed to lapse, many renewable energy jobs moved to other countries. The United States needs a stable, long-term national policy to encourage investment in these industries.

Stay tuned. It’s a renewable debate.

Congress isn’t finished debating climate change or renewable energy. They’ll likely try to renew the tax credits for the renewable energy industry again soon. Meanwhile, upcoming climate change legislation includes serious proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions. If you’d like to keep an eye on this, a good resource is GovTrack.us. You also can check out how your senators and representatives voted at Project Vote Smart, and get their contact information from the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives. Tell them what you think.

To read more about the energy bill, and how it will impact you and the environment, visit The Union of Concerned Scientists.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .