Moving towards a fossil-fuel free Earth Day

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This Earth Day we need to celebrate $3-a-gallon gasoline. Let’s have a big party and congratulate ourselves for this wonderful stroke of good fortune! A barrel of oil costs more now than at any other time in history since 1869! Maybe these good times will get even get better—$4 a gallon anyone?

Before all the drivers reading this run me over, let me explain the reason for my celebrant mood. However much I would like to think we are motivated to reduce our fossil-fuel consumption through ideals like caring for the environment and keeping our world peaceful and safe for our great-grandchildren, I see a different reality. We are fundamentally motivated by our wallets. And right now our wallets hurt when we go to the gas pump. And when our wallets hurt we begin to look for alternatives to $3-a-gallon gasoline. So why should we be celebrating high-priced gasoline? Let me count the ways.

First, it will help produce more efficient use of fossil fuels through hybrids and new-generation clean diesels. Most of the hybrid technology now comes from Japan, which has been dealing with $4-a-gallon gasoline for a long time. Environmentally friendly diesel engines, 30 to 40 percent more efficient than their gasoline counterparts, now power more than one third of Germany’s cars. With $3- or $4-a-gallon gas here, U.S. automakers may get the hint and see there is money to be made in emphasizing efficiency over monstrosity.

Second, it will help spur the search for alternatives to fossil fuels. One promising alternative right now is bio-fuel. Two promising bio-fuels are cellulosic ethanol and bio-diesel, both made from natural, renewable energy sources. Cellulosic ethanol (eco-ethanol) is made from agricultural waste by-products and yields much more energy than corn-based ethanol. Is ethanol realistic as a fuel source? Not using energy-weak corn, but perhaps with sugarcane. Look at Brazil, where in the last three years the country has moved from roughly 5 percent to over 50 percent use of sugarcane based ethanol-gasoline ‘duel-fuel’ cars.

Bio-diesel, now being promoted by celebrities like Willie Nelson, can also help produce a more fossil-fuel free future. Bio-diesel can even be made from restaurant waste vegetable oil. If the eight billion gallons of leftover grease that restaurants throw out every year would be used to power diesel engines we would free ourselves of roughly 15 percent of the fossil-fuel-based diesel we currently use.

Another promising fossil-fuel alternative is the plug-in hybrid. Take a regular hybrid and substitute more efficient lithium-ion batteries, and you can run a Toyota Prius for 30 miles without the use of the gasoline motor. Then plug in that Prius at home every night to recharge your batteries using electricity produced from the solar panels on your house and you have, for all practical purposes, a truly workable “solar car.”

Third, all these solutions are positive to both our wallet and our world. They go a long way towards reducing CO2 emissions, which are a primary contributor to the man-made portion of global warming. They reduce our global energy ‘footprint’ and, since we Americans are by far the largest and least efficient energy consumers, a smaller footprint means a healthier earth.

And finally, these solutions may go a long way towards bringing about more peaceable future Earth Days, safer for the all the world’s children and grandchildren. The rise of China and India on the global energy markets promises greater competition for increasingly scarce fossil fuels. The U.S. could choose to instead work in cooperation with these two emerging Asian giants to find fossil-fuel alternatives. This sounds like a way to keep both our earth and our wallets more secure. So let’s toast $3-a-gallon gasoline and hope that the good times go on for years to come.

Kenneth Martens Friesen is a history and political science professor at Fresno Pacific University. He has converted three cars to run on soybean oil and he and friend Steve Friesen plan to drive such a car across the country in May.

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