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President Obama has called for an "all of the above" energy strategy, ranging from taxpayer funding for electric vehicles to more drilling for oil and natural gas. The goal is to get a greater contribution from domestic renewable energy sources, such as the sun and wind, yet maintain cheap domestic energy from traditional fossil fuels.
"We're not going to be able to just drill our way out of the problem of high gas prices," Obama told a North Carolina crowd on March 7. "If we are going to control our energy future, then we've got to have an all-of-the-above strategy. We've got to develop every source of American energy—not just oil and gas, but wind power and solar power, nuclear power, biofuels."
The man in charge of actually implementing that all-of-the-above strategy for the past three-plus years is Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Scientific American spoke with Chu in Austin, Texas, by telephone on March 7, the same day the Obama administration launched its new effort to make electric cars "more affordable and convenient to own and drive than today's gasoline-powered vehicles within the next 10 years."
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Is domestic energy independence a useful goal?
It's certainly a useful goal to strive toward energy independence. It's analogous to striving for a zero-energy building [which produces as much energy as it uses]. The good news is that three and a half years ago we were importing about 60 percent of our oil; now it's around 45 percent and we see the trend going forward decreasing even more. Different people have different estimates. We are already largely energy independent in terms of electricity generation, although some electricity comes from Canada.
It's mostly transportation fuel I'm thinking about. That's a big cost driver, especially if you're importing 45 percent of it, spending $300 billion to $400 billion a year on petroleum. We have increased oil and gas production [in the U.S.]; we think it's already increased by 500,000 barrels per day. We think there's another million-barrel-per-day increase in production possible because of new technologies.
We also see a moderation, a flattening, perhaps even a decrease, in the use of transportation fuels as we go to more efficient automobiles. We see more diversification of transportation energy. Liquified natural gas for long-haul trucks has already been shown to make sense. The payback period [for the extra cost of the natural gas technology] is just four years if you drive 100,000 miles a year. Private companies are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build natural gas infrastructure. If you build it every 200 miles on the highway, you can capture a significant market, perhaps even half the market.
Does that mean we've given up on combating climate change?
No, absolutely not. This is all very consistent with climate change. Natural gas as a transition fuel is great. It's half the [carbon dioxide emissions]. We still need to figure out how to capture its carbon, which we need by mid-century no matter what the large source is [whether coal, oil or natural gas].