Oil has a virtual monopoly in transportation. Today, 97 percent of all U.S. transportation is fueled by petroleum. Try to go somewhere without using oil; there is virtually no choice.
What’s worse, most of our oil is imported. We have gone from 34 percent imported oil in the 1970s to 60 percent today. Hundreds of billions of the world’s oil dollars wind up in some of the least democratic, unstable and hostile countries of the world.
In Washington state, we use more than 3.6 billion gallons of gas a year in our cars and trucks, and we pay more than $9 billion to buy it – more than the state spends on K-12 education.
They have us over a barrel. We need a better choice. But what if we had a replacement for oil that cost less than a dollar for an equivalent gallon of gasoline? What if that replacement produced far less carbon dioxide than gas? And what if it helped us see mountains more clearly and breathe easier?
Finally, what if this replacement for gas could be produced here, keeping most of the billions of gas dollars in the state and regional economy.
If such a product existed, we would expect to see major advertising campaigns to get the word out, unrelenting pressure on automakers to produce the cars that used this fuel and an all-out effort to pass laws to help make it happen sooner.
But that product does exist. With advances in battery technology, electric power can serve to replace much of the gas we burn in our cars.
Compared to the corn-based ethanol industry, oil companies and other fuel producers, with a few exceptions, electric power producers have not yet been provided with government programs to help advance the technology.
It is time for that to change. Tacoma Power recently converted a standard hybrid car into a plug-in hybrid with a larger battery that can recharge at night from a standard electric outlet. With Tacoma Power’s low electric rates, the cost for an equivalent gallon of gas is 50 cents. It would cost 1 or 2 cents a mile to operate a plug-in hybrid car – compared to 10 cents a mile or more for a standard gas-powered car.
We produce some of the cleanest power in the country thanks to our own hydroelectric power generators, our wind power projects and carbon-free power we buy through the Bonneville Power Administration.
Some will say that electric utilities should not take the lead on what they say are Detroit’s problems. But these problems are not just Detroit’s; they’re ours.
Others will say utilities should stay focused on conservation by using less power. But moving from oil to electricity in transportation will save energy overall and do it with dramatically lower emissions and pollution.
Still others will say that we should not intervene to help support technologies to replace oil. But that has already happened. To take one example, under federal law, corn-ethanol producers receive a production tax credit of 51 cents a gallon.
For the same 51 cents a gallon credit, customers of Tacoma Power could pay for the entire cost of the electric power fuel for their plug-in hybrid cars.
Three steps can be taken to accelerate the day that Washington state drivers have a choice to replace gas with electric power.
Use the purchasing power of state and local government fleet purchases to provide a stable, dependable initial market for plug-in hybrid cars.
Set up pilot projects to demonstrate how to get the costs down faster, how to recharge cars by integrating wind, solar and tidal power and how to meter and bill for the electricity consumed. Recharging cars at off-peak times can make the power system much more efficient. Tacoma Power is looking for ways to work with others to set up a comprehensive plug-in hybrid car demonstration project
Remove roadblocks and create incentives to get things rolling. Bipartisan public support for greater independence from oil for economic and security reasons is strong. And this month a report from the Governor’s Climate Advisory Team said plug-in cars were a key way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions
With our clean power system, strong bipartisan political leadership and a history of progressive utility cooperation, electric utilities in this state can be leaders in transforming the future of transportation to provide a choice to oil.
Steve Marshall, a former utilities executive, is a senior fellow with the Cascadia Center for Regional Development in Seattle. Bill Gaines is director of utilities at Tacoma Public Utilities