Dec 12, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Planning for a future not dependent on oil
By Kate Riley
Seattle Times editorial columnist
Monday, December 12, 2005
Last week, I filled my trusty Honda's gas tank and happily noted the fall in gas prices eclipsed the 9.5-cent state gas tax I voted to keep.
But after a couple of days listening to energy experts, economists and investors talk about something called "peak oil," I fear a $2.16-a-gallon price is only a temporary respite.
Once the domain of wonky economists and think tanks, concern that world oil production is at or approaching its peak is gaining traction among America's policymakers. On the ascending side of the production bell curve, prices tend to be relatively low. But at the peak and on the downslope, they would rise precipitously.
Wednesday, the U.S. House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee held the first congressional hearing on the idea of peak oil and what should be done about it. Last month, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman asked a government advisory panel to study whether the world's oil and natural-gas production can continue to meet U.S. demand - and for how long.
It's an important question. The United States accounts for 8 percent of the world's oil production but consumes 25 percent. Sixty percent of U.S. consumption comes from foreign sources.
Competition for what is available is heating up - China recently surpassed Japan and is now the second-largest oil importer. It doesn't help that the majority of the world's proven oil reserves are in the volatile Mideast. Plus, it's difficult to know how much oil is available because some foreign producers aren't talking.
"We are sitting on the world's most incredible illusion - that the Mideast has an unlimited supply of oil," says Matthew Simmons, a Houston-based energy industry investment banker and one of President Bush's energy advisers.
Simmons points to the market response to the Gulf Coast's hurricanes as an indicator the industry's spare capacity is getting thin.
Gas prices near $3 a gallon, however briefly, have gotten people's attention. While federal energy legislation passed pre-Katrina offered little to reduce U.S. consumption, a bipartisan group of eight senators three weeks ago proposed legislation to do so.
Citing the need for energy independence and national security, the group led by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., would require U.S. consumption to be cut by 10 million barrels a day within 25 years. The bill would provide incentives for alternative vehicles and fuels.
Congressman Jay Inslee, D-Wash., has proposed legislation with a more holistic view. His New Apollo Energy Project would establish energy performance standards, provide tax incentives and market-based assistance to create clean energy jobs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil.
Last week, at its annual meeting in Spokane, the Washington Public Utility District Association highlighted plug-in hybrid vehicles and alternative energy generation, such as wind, landfill gas, solar and tidal/ocean energy.
In January, the Snohomish County Public Utility District and the Cascadia Center hope to launch a regional discussion about the role of plug-in hybrid technology in solving some Puget Sound problems. The PUD's Steve Marshall suggests an expanded hybrid-vehicle technology could solve some of Puget Sound's transportation problems. Hybrid cars with extra batteries could be topped off by recharging on home electrical systems, further increasing mileage. Technology could limit recharging overnight when loads are low. Or free charging could be offered at park-and-ride lots to encourage more people to take the bus.
I don't know if world oil production is peaking, but I'm glad policymakers from the Bush administration to local utilities are fretting about it. Congress erred when it passed legislation that turned a blind eye to reducing oil consumption. America must plan for a future with less dependence on oil.
Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@...
[Overlooked story from June]
City Light focuses on plug-in hybrids Utility at seminar will look at offering incentives for cars
Saturday, June 4, 2005
By BILL VIRGIN SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
You wouldn't think hybrid-power cars would need incentives to encourage consumers to buy them, nor might you think Seattle City Light would be looking for ways to increase demand for electricity.
But the municipal utility is co-sponsoring a two-day seminar next week on whether it ought to offer incentives for purchases of gasoline-electric vehicles, and whether encouraging such purchases would help City Light.
One of the speakers scheduled for the event is Roger Duncan, deputy general manager of Austin Energy, the municipal electric utility that serves the Texas capital.
The Austin City Council recently passed a resolution to set up an incentive program for hybrid vehicles; Austin Energy hopes cities such as Seattle will follow suit.
Duncan said the vehicles Austin has in mind are not the currently available hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid. Those vehicles have on-board systems, such as regenerative braking, for recharging batteries.
Instead, the focus is on the next-stage technology, "plug-in hybrids," in which on-board batteries can be recharged by plugging the car into the same electricity grid that powers a home.
Duncan said such cars would have increased battery storage capacity compared with current models, enough to cover most people's around-town trips and commutes without using the gasoline engine.
The gas engine would be available for out-of-town expeditions. "That's not the vehicle that's on the road today," he said in a phone interview. "These are not commercially available" although prototypes are being tested.
To encourage auto manufacturers to offer such cars, Austin is looking at utility rebates to those who purchase the vehicles, and placing government fleet orders. Details are still to be worked out, he said.
The drive to encourage hybrid vehicles has a broad goal of cutting petroleum consumption, for national security reasons and to reduce the contribution of gasoline use to global warming. Duncan said the reduction of gasoline use with a plug-in hybrid can be extended if the other fuel is biodiesel or ethanol.
Bob Royer, City Light's communications and public affairs director, says the utility is interested in the global warming aspect because of the potential impacts on the Northwest's hydropower system. City Light is concerned about the warnings of increasingly unstable weather systems, including smaller mountain snowpacks, which is the source of water to turn generating turbines.
"If there is a change in weather in which we have less rain, that's no good for us," he said.
Royer said there's also a business case to be made for plug-in hybrids as a way to increase power sales. Recharging vehicle batteries won't constitute a big load on the system, he said, but what demand there might be will tend to occur at night, a time of off-peak power demand when generating systems have unused capacity. For a hydro-based system like the Northwest, that means water that's flowing over the dams and through turbines anyway. In Austin, Duncan said, "we have West Texas winds" that can be harnessed for producing electricity.
Royer said the utility also wants to see if plug-in hybrids will cost customers less than paying for gasoline. "If we can help our customers save money, that's a role we've played in the past through our conservation programs," he said.
The forum, co-sponsored by the organizations Climate Solutions and Sustainable Ballard and to be held Monday and Tuesday at City Hall, will also look at whether there's a role for the Northwest in the manufacturing of hybrid-power vehicles, and whether plug-in hybrids could act as suppliers of power to the grid.
Seattle Electric Vehicle to Grid Forum is at 1 p.m. Monday and Tuesday in the Bertha Landes Room of Seattle City Hall. Seating is limited. Those interested in attending should RSVP to vic@....
P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or billvirgin@...