Is Energy Independence Feasible?

Several bloggers and columnists have been expressing skepticism as to the concept of energy independence, and I think they make some good arguments.

John Fialka in the WSJ:

The allure of energy independence is easy to see. It reinforces the belief that Americans can control their own economic destiny and appeals to a "deep-seated cultural feeling that we are Fortress America and we will not be vulnerable to unstable regimes," says David Jhirad, a former Clinton administration energy official who is vice president at World Resources Institute, an environmental-research group.

In fact, experts say, America's energy fortunes are inextricably linked to those of other countries. Global oil markets are interconnected, with oil prices set internationally. That means supply disruptions anywhere in the world will continue to have an almost instantaneous effect on the pump price of gasoline in the U.S.

"The real metric on this is not imported oil, but how much oil we use, period," says Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute who dismisses calls for energy independence as "rhetorical nonsense that transcends party affiliation."

Mr. Grumet's energy commission is trying to get experts to agree that the term "energy independence" should be dropped. He wants policy makers to focus on curbing oil consumption -- specifically the amount to produce each $1,000 of gross domestic product. The nation already is making some headway on that goal, he says, and the idea, while it may not fit on a bumper sticker, is beginning to resonate.

Hat-tip: Daniel Drezner.

Two Polytechnic University of New York professors in the Washington Post:

But as we've looked at biofuels more closely, we've concluded that they're not a practical long-term solution to our need for transport fuels. Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn't supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025. And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

It's difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addiction. Agriculture Department studies of ethanol production from corn -- the present U.S. process for ethanol fuel -- find that an acre of corn yields about 139 bushels. At an average of about 2.5 gallons per bushel, the acre then will yield about 350 gallons of ethanol. But the fuel value of ethanol is only about two-thirds that of gasoline -- 1.5 gallons of ethanol in the tank equals 1 gallon of gasoline in terms of energy output.

Moreover, it takes a lot of input energy to produce ethanol: for fertilizer, harvesting, transport, corn processing, etc. After subtracting this input, the net positive energy available is less than half of the figure cited above. Some researchers even claim that the net energy of ethanol is actually negative when all inputs are included -- it takes more energy to make ethanol than one gets out of it.

But allowing a net positive energy output of 30,000 British thermal units (Btu) per gallon, it would still take four gallons of ethanol from corn to equal one gallon of gasoline. The United States has 73 million acres of corn cropland. At 350 gallons per acre, the entire U.S. corn crop would make 25.5 billion gallons, equivalent to about 6.3 billion gallons of gasoline. The United States consumes 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually. Thus the entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of the demand.

Hat-tip: Prometheus.

Stephen Green even has a piece questioning the wisdom of solar panels as a economical alternative.

I think that these are reasonable concerns. In a global economy that is -- and appears likely to continue to be -- as integrated as it is now, energy independence seems about as feasible as mercantilism. I agree that biofuels probably have a place in the solution and that for political reasons having to do with the Middle East it would be good if we found energy elsewhere. But we can't afford to shoot ourselves in the foot with this by pretending that we can be totally energy independent.

The rhetorical appeal of energy independence in motivating people to adopt this cause is undeniable -- it seems to be one area on which the left and the right can agree. But I am beginning to be concerned that we are adopting a remedy that was worse than the problem. This massive give away to Big Agriculture may ultimately distract from the real issue of energy efficiency.

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