Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Seven Challenges for Energy Independence

Posted on September 14, 2008

Americans expect us to start today, not tomorrow, to deal with high energy costs. That is why last May I went to Oak Ridge to talk about what I thought we ought to do about this serious problem. I proposed a new Manhattan project for clean energy independence. I said, to begin with, we should do the things we know how to do – drill offshore for oil and gas that we know we have and can use to increase our supply and reduce the price at home. We have to deal with government regulations that have restricted our ability to drill offshore all these years. The responsible way to lift the drilling ban is to bring it up and vote on it – let everybody stand up and say whether they think it is a good idea to give our coastal states the opportunity to drill for oil and gas at least 50 miles offshore, and allow those states to keep 37.5 percent of the proceeds. In the case of electricity, we should pursue much more aggressively the technology we invented, which is nuclear power. Currently, nuclear power provides only 20 percent of our electricity, but if you are concerned about climate change and clean air, it counts for 70 percent of our clean electricity. My proposal is that we borrow a page from history – how we won the Second World War. President Roosevelt created a secret plan to build a bomb before Germany did, because if Germany got the bomb, it would have blackmailed the United States and the world. We succeeded because of that leadership – by recruiting the best scientists in the world, by stating a clear objective, and by using American know-how to do it. We need to do the same to find a solution to this energy problem – maybe seven mini-Manhattan projects with seven grand challenges: First, we should make electric cars and trucks commonplace. I recently asked the head of the Texas utility district how many more powerplants he would have to build so that half of his state’s cars and light trucks could be run on electricity instead of gasoline. ``Zero'' was the answer, because if you plug in at night, his utilities, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, have plenty of excess electricity going unused at night that they could sell to us at cheaper rates for our plug-in cars and trucks. So that is one clear way to use less gas and oil – by using more electric cars. A second grand challenge that I offered was carbon capture – the capturing of carbon emitted by coal plants. We talk a lot about this, but we have not done it yet. But over 5 years, if we embarked on a crash program like the Manhattan project, we might find a way to dispose of that carbon. We would help address climate change and set an example for China, India, and other countries building dirty coal plants that will affect our air as well. Third, we need to make solar power cost competitive with fossil fuels. Wind is useful in some places, and it has a subsidy. Solar power, however, is more widespread and promising. Solar thermal powerplants are solving the problem we have with wind, which is that we cannot store electricity made from it. The wind blows when it wants to. These solar thermal plants, on the other hand, make steam, which can be used to create electricity. Fourth, we need to safely reprocess and store nuclear waste. By doing this, we can make nuclear power an even more viable and attractive energy solution. Fifth, we should make advanced biofuels cost competitive with gasoline. There is a limit to what we can do with corn to make fuel, but there are plenty of other crops, such as switchgrass that could grow all across our state, which we can use to develop renewable fuels. Sixth, we should make new buildings green buildings. Over the next 30 years, we can make sure that every new building that goes up is green, using less energy in an environmentally friendly way. Finally, we need to participate in international research for fusion. I know this is a long shot, but the United States should participate in this effort to create energy the way the sun generates its energy. We need a new Manhattan project for clean energy independence that begins by doing what we already know how to do and then takes on these seven grand challenges – this is the kind of policy we should adopt and people would respect us for. According to surveys, 81 percent of the American people agree with the idea of a new Manhattan project for clean energy independence. At the very least, the Senate should make certain in these next 3 weeks that it does job one – making sure that we drill offshore to produce American energy. Doing this will get us started down the road to finding more American oil and using less foreign oil.