Gas prices are soaring again, Washington is worked up in a lather over energy security and I can't help but feel I've seen this movie before — in 2008, 2005 and back to 1979 and 1973. It wasn't a pretty picture then, and over the almost 40 years since, it only has gotten worse.
Isn't it ironic that, over five Republican and three Democratic presidential administrations, our unwillingness as a country to effectively address our national dependence on foreign oil has led us to now watch Col. Muammar Gaddafi possibly do more harm to the American economy than he ever did through his state-sponsored terrorism?
Our dependence on the global oil market is such that Libya sneezes and the world oil markets catch a cold. Now Americans find themselves at risk because of the sudden political instability across the Middle East and North Africa.
President Obama acknowledged this long-term failure explicitly in his speech April 20 when he called for America to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by a third.
Gasoline prices have already risen above $4 per gallon in many areas. But what we need to contemplate is that the only thing that stands between our economy and physical shortage of gasoline is King Abdullah, the fragile 86-year-old steward of Saudi Arabia. That is a thin reed indeed for the greatest power on earth to hang its national energy security.
It's difficult to see any good news in our current predicament, but I offer one: electric vehicles (EVs). We have at our fingertips a real, permanent solution to deal with the economic pain and strategic vulnerability inflicted on every American as a result of our collective foreign oil addiction. President Obama said, "There are few breakthroughs as promising for increasing fuel efficiency and reducing our dependence on oil as electric vehicles" during his energy security speech.
As gas prices spike, we can demand better fuel efficiency, carpool and consider tapping domestic lands for drilling. But whatever the merits of these measures, they are fundamentally incremental or stopgap in nature. They do next to nothing to fix the underlying problem. The cure to our addiction begins with the President and Congress working together on a plan that puts Americans in control of our energy future, strengthens our economy and protects our environment without costing jobs. I don't believe those objectives can be achieved without support for electric vehicles.
While the car-driving public remains dependent on petroleum as its principal source of energy, the American power industry now is almost oil-free. Less than one percent of American electricity is generated by petroleum, and a small but increasing percentage of American electricity is produced by our own free and inexhaustible solar and wind resources.
By the end of 2012, we will have the capacity to build hundreds of thousands of EVs domestically. With greater demand, that number could scale to the millions by 2015.
Congress can support and accelerate the EV revolution with smart legislation. A few common-sense measures like allowing EV drivers to use HOV lanes, support for battery technologies, and extending incentives or rebates for EV purchases will stimulate the demand needed to make electric vehicles competitive with gas vehicles. Streamlining the process of building an infrastructure of fast, conveniently located charging stations will let companies like mine provide the "range confidence" Americans will expect from their EV.
The potential cost savings to the American consumer, currently being gouged to pay for foreign oil, is immense. At $4 a gallon, the average American driver is spending nearly $240 a month on gas. By comparison, our eVgo service in Houston offers EV drivers all the fuel they can use for $50 to $90 per month depending on the plan they choose. That's about $10,000 over five years, and that's not even counting the reduced maintenance costs. And that is at $4 gas; let's not even contemplate $5 to $6 per gallon gas.
In Washington, there is support for policies designed to put one million EVs on the road, out of the current 250 million cars and lights trucks. I believe we should be shooting for 100 million EVs. That number will displace roughly the same amount of petroleum our country currently imports from the Middle East. Isn't that a national objective that all Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — can support?
We don't want to be at the mercy of speculators watching daily news alerts on unrest around the world, or go to bed hoping that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia continues to have the best interest of the United States in his heart. As President Obama said in his speech, our economic prosperity should not be beholden to the Middle East, or anywhere else.
David Crane is CEO of NRG Energy, an energy company that is launching the nation's first privately-funded electric vehicle ecosystem in Houston, Tex.