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The National Academies Summit on America’s Energy Future: Summary of a Meeting
U.S. cars and light-duty trucks by 2035 (Cheah et al., 2007). “So the recent legislation went partway. It’s technically possible to go farther,” Nelson said. “It costs money, and the consumer may not necessarily jump up and down to buy one, but it’s technically possible. And it’s the biggest lever the United States has to decrease oil demand.”
High gas prices are very painful to people who cannot afford them, Portney said. But high prices also have a positive effect by changing incentives, technologies, and tastes. Gasoline consumption, which had been rising for many years, has begun to decline. And a different mix of vehicles is appearing on U.S. roads. “Hybrids on the road will soon number in the millions rather than the tens or even hundreds of thousands,” Portney said. “We’ve seen the introduction into the United States on a larger scale of cleaner, much better performing diesel engines, which is a very important development in improving fuel economy. And now we’ve begun to see what I think is perhaps the most promising of the so-called conventional technologies—plug-in hybrids, which I think will change the fuel economy picture in the United States significantly.”
Another positive effect of high gas prices is that venture capitalists have become much more focused on clean energy and efficient vehicles. They are investing in new battery technologies, lighter materials, and alternative fuels, among other technologies. (The role of the private sector in the energy market is discussed in Part IV.)
Even beyond the projections of the MIT group, great potential exists to improve the efficiency of vehicles and reduce U.S. dependence on imported petroleum, said Amory Lovins, who emphasized the energy savings that could be realized through a wide variety of technological innovations. Indeed, the key to energy efficiency, according to Lovins, is to realize that efficiency is profitable, not costly. “It is cheaper to save fuel than to buy fuel,” Lovins said. “The climate debate should be about profits and competitive advantage. Once it is reframed in that way, any remaining resistance will melt faster than the glaciers. The biggest obstacle is the assumption that climate protection is costly. That is unexamined and clearly untrue, as many smart firms demonstrate [by] making billions of dollars substituting efficiency for fuel.”
Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute has estimated that the efficiency of cars, trucks, and planes could be tripled with investments that would pay for themselves in 2 years, 1 year, and 4 or 5 years, respectively, if decisions were made to pursue these efficiencies. First, vehicles could be made ultra-lightweight, more efficiently powered, and “slippery,” so that they move through the air and along the road with less resistance (and often with better performance). For example, a diesel-hybrid carbon-fiber concept car from Opal can go 155 miles per hour and get 94 miles per gallon (though not at the same time). Surprisingly, the