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Is the United States on the Verge of Energy Independence?

By Doug Ehrman - Apr 13, 2013 at 11:15AM

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Multiple forms of alternative energy are helping to push the U.S. away from importing foreign oil and gas.

While in many ways alternative energy remains in its infancy, continuing developments have put the U.S. in a better position relative to energy independence than seemed even thinkable a decade ago. The advent of hydraulic fracturing -- known as fracking -- has opened up a significant oil and gas supply that continues to lower the need to import resources from abroad. Similarly, advances in solar energy are making it an increasing viable solution, and positive guidance from the solar sector supports this belief. Finally, the U.S. is sitting on huge deposits of kerogen that could contain as much as 6 trillion barrels of oil if it could be extracted.

A case for liquefied natural gas
While thus far liquefied natural gas, or LNG, has remained impractical and unavailable in smaller, non-commercial vehicles, there has been an increasing push toward adopting this fuel for larger applications. Within the past month, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A 2.10%) announced that it's rolling out a pilot program to test the viability of using LNG to power locomotives at its BNSF Railway. The rail company is the second largest consumer of diesel in the country, using more fuel than any entity other than the U.S. Navy. If rail could effectively switch to LNG, the reduction in oil consumption would be dramatic.

This type of reduction would serve to continue a trend that has already begun. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, oil imports have fallen from a peak of 60% of consumption being supplied by foreign oil to 32%; furthermore, since total consumption has fallen, this means that the lower percentage is of an already smaller number. Similarly, according to a B of A Merrill Lynch estimate, where the U.S. spent $216 billion on natural gas in 2008, that number had fallen to $76 billion in 2012. A large factor for the decrease has been the explosion in supply from fracking operations.

Also aiding this effort is a push being made by Clean Energy Fuels (CLNE 5.50%) to build enough LNG filling stations across the country to allow freight to traverse the U.S. in LNG-powered trucks. As the bulk of our goods still travels by truck, if these vehicles could be transitioned to LNG and away from diesel, consumption of foreign oil would fall even further. As the LNG trend continues, the position of the U.S. should continue to improve.

Solar flares
The second week of April saw solar companies explode to the upside, driven largely by bullish comments from First Solar (FSLR 5.77%) about the company's outlook for the rest of the year through 2015. The company also announced its acquisition of TetraSun under undisclosed financial terms. TetraSun brings expertise with silicon photovoltaic technology that's been used by other leaders in the field. The acquisition should open up new avenues for First Solar and give the company the ability to improve overall efficiency.

On that front, Sun Power (SPWR 6.81%) announced earlier this week that it was releasing its X-Series panels that are capable of achieving 21.5% efficiency. This level of efficiency puts the company in the industry-leading role and is probably one of the catalysts for First Solar's acquisition of TetraSun -- the company has achieved 21% efficiency in past projects. The flurry of good news provides solid evidence that solar energy is becoming increasingly viable and should aid in the U.S. push for energy independence.

Keep digging for oil
Early estimates suggest that the U.S. may be sitting on enough kerogen to yield up to 6 trillion barrels of oil should the technology become more readily available to extract it. The process by which organic materials become oil takes millions of years, passing through a variety of stages. Fairly early in the process, oil shale is created, which requires the application of high levels of heat to render usable oil for refining; the process is called retorting. In addition, because kerogen isn't easily liquefied, it can't be extracted easily and, unlike fracking, requires costly mining operations.

Device used to extract oil from oil shale. Source: State of Colorado GeoSurvey.

Because of the complexity of the process, kerogen is not typically economic viable. The reserves do exist, however, and speak of great potential when American ingenuity is able to be fully applied to the problem. In the interim, the existence of these reserves provides some evidence that the U.S. ultimately has the ability to become energy independent.

As LNG, solar power, and other resources like kerogen continue to be explored and exploited, the overall position of the U.S. in terms of energy consumption continues to improve. Without framing the issue in terms of national security, as scarce resources are depleted, the ability to look within becomes of increasing value. For investors, following these developments has significant potential and should not be overlooked.

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Stocks Mentioned

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
$478,669.51 (2.10%) $9,864.47
First Solar, Inc. Stock Quote
First Solar, Inc.
$72.01 (5.77%) $3.93
Clean Energy Fuels Corp. Stock Quote
Clean Energy Fuels Corp.
$5.56 (5.50%) $0.29
SunPower Corporation Stock Quote
SunPower Corporation
$18.19 (6.81%) $1.16

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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