Energy independence is coming.
Depending which projection you believe, we will be free of imports to meet our energy needs by 2015 or, at the latest, by 2020.
We are getting there because hydrocarbon production is booming. The U.S. is producing record quantities of oil and natural gas. High crude prices, more drilling and new technology — e.g., hydrolytic fracturing — are driving the boom.
There are many benefits, not the least being it buys us time to develop renewable sources. It's an unprecedented opportunity.
Cheap renewable fuels — biofuels, solar or wind power that can compete without taxpayer subsidies — are years away. But progress is being made.
Biofuels hold particular promise. Ethanol from carbohydrate fermentation is currently used at 10 percent to 15 percent levels in most gasoline. Increased usage will require 15 billion gallons by 2015.
Ethanol is combustible and clean. (Think bananas foster or cherries jubilee.)
The most plentiful feedstock is corn. Ethanol producers use a whopping 40 percent of the nation's corn supply, and therein lies a problem. Corn used for fuel is corn that can't be used for food, including livestock feed. That, in turn, leads to shortages and high food prices.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has joined a number of other governors in petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to waive the ethanol requirement in gasoline. Scott is worried about the impact of expensive cattle feed on Florida's $4 billion livestock industry.
No question, if ethanol is to make it as a fuel, it must come from inedible sources — fast-growing plants or waste products that can be cheaply processed. And that's easier said than done.
But advances are being made:
New efficient enzymes have been developed for converting grasses grown on marginal land into sugars that can be fermented to ethanol.
High-yield breakdown of corn stalks has been demonstrated on a pilot scale. Chemical giant DuPont is breaking ground on a test facility in Iowa.
A Brazilian firm is piloting a process that uses inexpensive sugarcane waste.
An integrated fermentation/chemical procedure using breakthrough extraction technology has achieved high yields of biofuels, even from "dirty" sugar sources like molasses.
A process using mineral acids to free sugars from biomass has shown promise in a pilot plant in North Carolina.
A genetically engineered bacterium has been found to express sugars directly from a carbon dioxide feed. Energy is supplied by sunlight. Pretty slick: carbon dioxide in, fermentation-ready sugars out, fueled by the sun.
Most of these developments are at an early stage, and most will fail for technical or economic reasons. But there is a lot of activity, and we read about breakthroughs every month.
A good indicator is the amount of private money being poured into startups. Venture capitalists and private equity firms are betting hundreds of millions of dollars that biofuels will be the energy source of the future. It may be a good bet.