All across America, our conversations about energy independence seem to begin and end with oil. Topics range widely from the amount of oil we produce, to the oil we import, to whether we should drill for more at home, to approving giant pipeline projects. But it is always about oil.
Invariably, someone will mention renewables: solar, wind, or even hydro. The key to energy independence, it is argued, is getting off oil and onto solar and wind.
The problem is, that idea is completely wrong.
How Americans use oil
Yes, solar and wind are incredibly important to a happy and healthy future, but they won't make us energy independent. That's because those alternatives, as well as hydro and nuclear, are used almost exclusively for electricity generation. In the U.S., 2% of oil consumption is used to generate 1% of our electric power, which means that even if we replaced all of that generation with solar or wind, we'd still be as dependent on oil as we are today. If the nation remains dependent on oil -- even if we produce most of it ourselves -- it will never be energy independent.
Therefore, if we are to ever achieve this elusive energy independence, we first need to understand exactly how we use oil, and then move to replace it in that context.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States consumed 6.79 billion barrels of oil in 2012. Seventy-five percent of that was comprised of gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel, and jet fuel. If we are serious about energy independence, we need to get serious about alternative transportation fuels.
On the road to energy independence
Slowly but surely, we are carving out alternatives to gasoline and diesel used in transportation. Natural gas engines are quickly making inroads into the long haul trucking market. State governments are also ramping up the adoption of NGVs as fleet vehicles, as are corporations like UPS and Verizon.
Plug-in vehicles manufactured by companies like Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) are eye-catching, but more importantly every Tesla sold gets us closer to energy independence. The same goes for the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt, Ford's (NYSE:F) C-Max, or any other plug-in or hybrid vehicle. It is fuel choice that will set us free.
Yes, fuel choice; the option to use something other than petroleum to power our planes, trains, and automobiles. If we can get through the day without putting oil into our cars or trucks, then we are no longer dependent on it. Even if we still produce, import, and use oil on a daily basis, if every American has another option, we will be energy independent. Sales of alternative fuel vehicles are up this year, but still only make up a tiny fraction of overall sales,, and we still have a ways to go before they have a meaningful impact on our oil consumption.
Wind, solar, hydro, nuclear -- they're all important for our energy future, but when it comes to our energy independence, we need to steer the conversation back where it belongs: replacing oil as a transportation fuel.