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Page added on May 26, 2010

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Energy Security and Oil Substitution

Alternative Energy

For the last several years, US energy policy has been operating on the assumption that energy security and climate change were pretty much two sides of the same coin, in terms of motivating changes in our energy production and consumption. The Gulf Coast oil spill and some of the proposals for addressing the vulnerabilities it has exposed reveal the extent to which the connection between these two issues has been oversimplified. I’ve devoted several recent postings to explaining why renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power will have a minimal effect on our dependence on oil, and why vehicle electrification and biofuels look promising but are likely to be quite limited in their impact on imports for at least the near future. However, that doesn’t mean we have no good options today. In fact, some quite prosaic measures could have a significant impact while we’re waiting for the slower-cooking ones to ramp up. Something as simple as substituting natural gas for heating oil could be a very useful step, meriting additional support.

The broader concept of energy security, as opposed to simply oil security, gained traction a few years ago, when it appeared that natural gas was about to join the list of commodities for which the US would have to rely on steadily-increasing imports to satisfy domestic consumption. Shale gas is reversing that trend, and we are not at risk of becoming net importers of coal or electricity to any significant extent. From the US energy import and export figures, it’s clear that our import dependence problem pretty much starts and ends with oil and its products, particularly when you consider that most of our relatively modest natural gas imports come from Canada. But while we may control our own destiny for electricity and natural gas, oil remains as complicated as ever, in part because most oil, but very little electricity, is used in transportation. If we want to reduce our reliance on oil and oil imports, we must focus on either efficiency and conservation, or on direct substitution. And for now, substitutes for oil in its main uses are still relatively small in scale, entail serious performance penalties, or both. However, if we look beyond the high-profile uses of oil in automobiles or aircraft, there are a few areas for which good, large-scale substitutes are available now.


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