In his State of the Union address, President Bush put the spotlight on Americans' energy consumption with the blunt declaration: "Americans are addicted to oil." The president pledged increased investment in alternative energy resources and an increased reliance on domestic ethanol. How far is America from true energy independence? Here is a look at a couple of the energy-related comments from the president's address and some real-world stats on our energy consumption.
The president said, "We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen."
What is the state of the hybrid market?
Hybrid cars still make up a very modest portion of the U.S. car market, but America's Big Three automakers have promised to ramp up production. Ford, which already boasts the environmentally friendly face of its Escape hybrid SUV, plans to boost global production of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles tenfold by 2010. That would boost the company's hybrid production to 250,000 annually. Despite its promotional efforts, its hybrids aren't big sellers yet. Ford had both a hybrid Escape and a traditional gas-fueled Escape on the market for a year, but hybrids made up just 10 percent of total Escape sales. But the Big Three are making efforts to introduce more hybrids into their lines. GM used the recent Detroit auto show to unveil its first major hybrids, the Saturn Vue Green Line and a hybrid Chevrolet Tahoe.
Other hybrid technology, including "plug-in hybrids," which would allow drivers to run their cars on mostly electric power before a traditional gas-burning motor kicks in, are still in development. No plug-in hybrid cars are on the market yet, but researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute in California have worked with Daimler Chrysler on prototypes. EPRI officials say they are hopeful that plug-in hybrids will be available on the retail market within five years.
Bush also introduced an idea that sounded novel to Americans not familiar with the grassy plains. "We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years."
Bush's 2007 budget proposal calls for $150 million for developing "cellulosic ethanol" and making it cost-effective by 2012, offering the potential to displace 30 percent of the nation's current fuel use.
Currently, corn-based ethanol accounts for a little less that 3 percent of the nation's fuel use, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol industry trade group. The ethanol industry has the capacity to produce about 4.3 billion gallons annually.
Cellulosic ethanol is not currently produced for commercial use in the United States, though a Canadian company is working to build a production plant in Idaho. Switchgrass is easier and less expensive to grow than corn, but without a commercial plant it may be difficult develop the technology needed to convert switchgrass to ethanol on a wide scale.