Without fail, when we write about alternative energy for vehicles — whether it be ethanol, hydrogen, electric, natural gas, whatever — we get e-mails (1) congratulating us on our insight and astuteness and predicting that oil's ready for the scrap heap of history, or (2) telling us that, however distasteful, we're going to be shackled to imported oil for a long time to come.
Realistically, the latter is probably the more accurate assessment. The gasoline/diesel infrastructure has been built over more than a century, with mega-billions of dollars invested. However much we may rail about cost, that infrastructure works and works well … as long as everything goes as it should from the oil well to the refinery to the gas pump.
The following are some of the more reasoned comments from a long-time reader about the difficulties in weaning ourselves from the oil spigot:
“It would be nice,” he writes, “to be free of Middle East oil dependency for a variety of well-known reasons, but difficult for one simple reason: Middle East oil is, on average, the most plentiful, low production cost, and most easily refined source of energy on the planet, other than U.S. coal. Coal works well for power generation, but not for vehicles, obviously. Would that any of the alternative fuels were so plentiful and cheap.
“Government gets involved because alternatives need subsidy to compete. In addition to subsidy, any widespread use of electric vehicles will require massive additional power generation, and windmills won't cut it. That means more coal-fired plants, or nuclear, or both.
“I wonder how attractive electric cars will be when electric rates go up by 50 percent or more under cap and trade (tax) to solve the so-called global warming crisis?
“In a free market, the low-cost producer wins. I wish we could allocate some of the cost of political and military problems to Middle East oil, but no mechanism exists for that. Real reduction in Middle East oil consumption will occur when the price of alternatives can compete. Due to political/regulatory restrictions on new domestic oil production, that doesn't seem likely for some decades, no matter how much wishful thinking to the contrary.
“The current administration and Congress want to bully forward on alternative fuels. They are named ‘alternative’ for a reason: They are, and will remain for a long time, a second best economic choice.
“I predict they will ultimately apply taxes to force the price of gasoline north of $4 as the only way to make people buy cars they otherwise wouldn't. The ‘shame’ is not that it takes $4 gas to do it, but that our political class will force that tax on the American people to satisfy their own environmental fantasies.”
True enough, as the reader notes, gasoline's going to be the cheapest, easiest route for the foreseeable future. But any move away from petroleum has to start somewhere. Electric cars, in however limited numbers, can be a solution for thousands of average commuters.
There are going to be drawbacks to any alternative energy, and probably higher costs. But I personally would rather pay higher electric rates if it will spur (eventually) a significant move away from imported oil.
And granted, coal-powered generation plants aren't the most environmentally friendly alternative — but it's OUR coal, it's right here in the U.S. of A., and we've got plenty. Best of all, we don't have to bow and scrape to the sheikhs to get it.