Published on 08/13/09

Experts discuss breaking US's oil addiction

No single renewable energy source, such as biofuel, solar or wind, will break the country’s massive dependence on foreign oil. Industry experts, scientists and policymakers gathered to discuss how the three sources combined could at the 2009 Southeast Bioenergy Conference Aug. 11 at the University of Georgia Tifton Campus Conference Center in Tifton, Ga.

Right now, oil is the “trump card” that beats all others in world power, said keynote speaker and prominent astronautics engineer Robert Zubrin, whose recent book “Energy Victory” outlines a plan to break the decades-long economic grip the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has had on the U.S. economy.

More than any other OPEC country, he said, Saudi Arabia is the strongest, making $400 billion from its oil last year, which costs only 50 cents per barrel to pump from the ground. Saudi Arabia produces more oil than the next four OPEC countries combined and uses its dominance to monopolize the market and fund terrorism.

OPEC’s power is very dangerous for the U.S. and the world, he said. For example, the 1973 Arab oil embargo sent the U.S. into economic chaos. At the time, the U.S. only received 30 percent of its oil from foreign countries.

Today, such an embargo would devastate the U.S., which now gets 65 percent of its oil from OPEC. Adding to the threat, OPEC has trillions of dollars in cash reserves and could implement a prolonged embargo.

“They can keep us shut down until you’re gone,” he said.

Oil control has been the key to success or defeat for many conflicts in the past century, particularly WW II. In 1940, the U.S. produced 60 percent of the world’s oil. Its allies Russia and England controlled another 15 percent. Germany lost the war because it literally ran out of gas.

To turn the tide, Zubrin said, alcohol-based fuels like ethanol and methanol must become the new trump card in the energy game. U.S. agriculture’s fertile ground could take a big lead in growing biomass to turn into fuel to power the world.

The first thing the U.S. can do, he said, is mandate all vehicles be equipped to run on flex-fuel, or a mix of gasoline and an alcohol-based fuel. Within a few years of such an action, gas stations would carry more alcohol-based fuels to meet the growing demand, which would help farmers, drastically increase the bioenergy markets and reduce carbon emissions.

Zubrin also estimates it would put 50 million flex-fuel vehicles on U.S. highways and millions more around the world.

Every resource for energy independence must be considered in terms of tax incentives or ways they are promoted, said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

“Whether it’s 50 percent of our cars by 2015 burning alternative fuels or whether it’s a voluntary system of protocols to reduce carbon emission into our atmosphere or whether it is tax incentives to promote bioenergy, all of those ought to be promoting every single resource so we in the United States can become energy independent,” Isakson said.

Georgia has the agricultural knowledge, climate, infrastructure and business-friendly atmosphere to lead the country in alternative-energy production, said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.

“Georgia has been uniquely blessed with the natural resources, intellectual capital and entrepreneurial spirit that can make growing, producing and using our own energy a reality right here in our state,” Perdue said.

The three-day conference drew 450 attendants from across the country and world to hear scores of speakers discuss topics such as biofuel crops and biomass, vehicles and farm equipment, conservation strategies, finance, current bioenergy development in the area and career opportunities.

Several entrepreneurs provided workshops on how to make ethanol and biodiesel on the farm. Dozens of vendors participated in the trade show, including Tesla and Gaia Transport, which displayed their cutting-edge renewable energy vehicles entered in the prestigious X Prize competition.

"I believe that now is the most exciting and profitable time to take advantage of renewable energies, and the Southeast Bioenergy Conference is one of the most comprehensive and affordable ways to learn how,” said Craig Kvien, a professor with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and conference organizer.

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.