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TR: The president mentioned improving fuel economy. How important is that?

DV: Some sort of a ratcheting up of fuel-economy standards is long overdue. And a lot of people have been calling for it. And maybe they have enough votes for it on the Hill, and enough support from the White House that something will actually get done about it.

TR: As he did last year, the president mentioned plug-in vehicles, which are powered by both gasoline and electricity from the grid. Does it make sense to develop this technology?

DV: That’s really interesting technology. It’s interesting because it’s less demanding of battery technology than the all-electric vehicle. The problem with all-electric vehicles is that they need very good batteries that can store a lot of energy, don’t cost an arm and a leg, and don’t weigh a ton. And that goal has been elusive so far. But the pluggable hybrids are interesting because they store enough energy for the first typically 20 or 30 miles of driving, and then the engine kicks in like a normal hybrid vehicle. And since most of the energy gets used in short trips, that can result in a large reduction in gasoline consumption. And in most cases it doesn’t require such complicated electrical recharging stations because you’re not trying to charge up such a large battery over such a short period of time–you’re trying to put less energy in, and so that makes it easier to see how these vehicles will be diffused into use, because people wouldn’t have to go rewire their house in order to buy one of these vehicles.

So the technology from the pluggable-hybrid side is very interesting. And if you start doing that, there are really potentially important synergies between that and the electric power grid. (See “How Plug-in Hybrids Will Save the Grid.”)

TR: What would be your ideal energy plan?

DV: I think we have to recognize that we will be dependent on foreign oil for the foreseeable future. And that our goals, if we set realistic goals, should be to make the markets more flexible and robust by building in shock absorbers like the bigger strategic petroleum reserve.

There’s a big difference between what you can do in the short term, which is about making the markets work better, putting everything on the same economic footing, and what you can do in the long term, which is, potentially, radical transformation of the technologies to pluggable hybrids, cellulosic biomass for biofuels, to maybe fuel cells with hydrogen if that turns out well. But that requires a very long-term perspective, with investments in a whole range of technologies so that you can see eventually what technologies actually make commercial sense. And then they, over a period of decades, will come into wider use. But in between now and then, we will be dependent on foreign oil, and this discussion of energy independence is actively harmful.

TR: Last year’s State of the Union address contained a similar emphasis on reducing gasoline consumption: the president said that the United States was “addicted to oil.” Yet those proposals weren’t made into law. Will things be different this year?

DV: It’s easy to lay out a long list of things that can be done. It’s easy to set ambitious targets–usually targets that can’t be met. And then in reality not much gets done. Part of that is because it’s politically very difficult to put together the coalition to get things done, and because some of these things cost money. What usually survives are things that have a very wide coalition, and that’s why I suspect that some sort of larger biofuels program is going to survive, because almost everybody’s in favor of that. Most of the other things will probably get delayed or ignored. It will be interesting to see whether there will be a sufficient coalition to ramp up fuel-economy standards.

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Credit: David Victor, Stanford University

Tagged: Energy, energy, biofuel, ethanol, biomass, Q&A

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