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Looking for an energy change-up

Jan. 25, 2012

Our economy spends over $300 billion a year on imported petroleum and the cost in economic activity in this country over the last couple of decades has been measured in the trillions of dollars of lost purchasing power.” –Frederick W. Smith, president and CEO of FedEx Corp. and co-chairman Energy Security Leadership Council

It’s no great surprise that energy policy took a front seat in President Obama’s State of the Union address for the third year in a row. And certainly no shock should be registered that many of the policies advocated by the president in his speech contradict the actions of his administration over the past three years as well.

I mean, how else is one to hear and read of his goal to “boost domestic oil and natural gas production” when projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline are tabled, offshore drilling permits are banned, and the President himself again calls for the cancellation of tax breaks for oil and gas companies – even as such tax breaks are established (and federal loans given) to the so called “green” energy sector?

Well, that’s how it goes when energy and politics collide.

Yet no amount of political bickering can obscure the most salient (and frightening) fact about energy as it relates to our country: it remains one of our most vulnerable weak spots. Thus anything we as a nation can do to not only reduce energy consumption but change the kinds of energy we consume remains a welcome target for the U.S. to aim at.

"Oil plays a role in almost everything we do,” explained retired U.S. Air Force General John W. Handy, former Commander of the U.S. Transportation Command and co-chairman of the Energy Security Leadership Council (ESLC); a group which seeks to wean the U.S. off foreign oil import.

“Our armed forces have played the role of 'global policeman' for oil supplies at great cost to our servicemen and women for decades,” he added. “And about 12% of the current defense budget goes to guaranteeing the free flow of oil.”

Frederick W. Smith (at left), president and CEO of FedEx Corp. and co-chairman with Hardy for the ESLC stressed that “it's imperative that the U.S. deal with this problem on a comprehensive basis, not on a compartmentalized basis, and we need to find oil savings wherever we can.”

The group reiterated policy suggestions from its Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) report following President Obama’s speech, one of which is taking a comprehensive and balanced approach to addressing traffic congestion.

“Congestion in America identifies flexible, multi-dimensional transportation policies that address traffic congestion across the country, increase traveler mobility, and reduce wasted time and fuel,” the group noted.

[Distracted driving adds to this problem, as this clip below from the Texas Transportation Institute shows.]

The range of options available to policymakers can be grouped into four primary categories, it said: better road traffic management; improved accident/incident resolution; increased use of public transit; and more focus on transportation needs within urban planning and development efforts.

“In 2010, drivers in U.S. urban areas were estimated to have wasted 1.9 billion gallons of fuel,” ESLC noted in its report. “In the absence of substantial and effective policy intervention, estimates suggest the amount of fuel waste and travel delays will increase by approximately 30% by 2015 and 65% by 2030.”

When it comes to using alternative fuel sources, the city of Surrey in British Columbia, Canada – the second largest city in that province, behind Vancouver – offers an interesting idea for U.S. municipalities to ponder.

Surrey is moving forward with an effort to develop what it calls a “closed loop” transportation plan for trash pickup and disposal. Examined in detail within Setting the Pace for Sustainable Transportation report, compiled by New York-based non-profit environmental organization Energy Vision, Surrey’s effort seeks to have all refuse trucks operating within its area fueled by natural gas produced from “organic” trash by 2014.

[Below is how Waste Management makes a similar “closed loop” trash-to-fuel system work.]

Step one of Surrey’s seven-year contract, which goes into effect in October this year, mandates the use of natural gas-powered refuse trucks. The winner of the city’s trash contract, BFI Canada, thus agreed to purchase 70 to 75 natural gas-powered trash trucks and is readying them for operation.

Step two involves the launching of a carefully planned initiative to collect separated organics from Surrey’s 470,000 residents and its businesses. Finally, the collected organics will go to a new organics biofuel facility, due to begin operation in 2014, where the gases produced by these wastes will be processed into fuel for BFI’s trucks.

Energy Vision, by the way, notes that the U.S. and Canada are among the top five generators of municipal solid waste per capita and are so well positioned to initiate a sustainable “trash to fuel” system.

“The conversion of some 65,538 tons of yard and kitchen waste - the bulk of the city’s expensive waste burden - into a clean fuel solution … is also geared to produce economic benefits, especially because of the much lower price of natural gas fuel,” noted Joanna Underwood, president of Energy Vision, in its report.

“By 2014, Surrey will have slashed its total municipal waste stream by 75% through recycling (23%) and now by separated organics (51%), while use of these organics to make fuel eliminates reliance on oil and brings the greenhouse gases related to its refuse fleet almost to zero,” she added.

“We believe it’s important for governments to demonstrate leadership by advancing new technologies, reducing energy consumption and creating healthier communities,” explained Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts. “It shows that municipal leaders can become powerful game changers in helping shape a sustainable future for their communities, their countries, and our world.”

Let’s hope so.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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