Electric-car advocates spend a lot of time touting the advantages of driving on plug-in power rather than burning gasoline.

Sometimes, it can be a lonely battle.

But now the U.S. Department of Energy has weighed in on the side of electric cars, with a conclusion that may startle some: It's more important to promote the adoption of cars that plug into the grid, and hence reduce dependence on oil for transport, than to clean up the electric grid by promoting renewable energy.

The report calls reliance on oil--much of it imported--"the greatest immediate threat to economic and national security," and concludes that the department is not investing enough of its resources into programs to reduce or eliminate oil use for transportation.

To replace oil, the report said, the department should place the highest priority on electric-vehicle research.

While the DoE also funds other sorts of alternate fuel research--including biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel--electric cars have the advantage that they can be recharged from electricity generated through any number of so-called pathways, including coal, natural gas, hydropower, wind, and solar.

Electric power plant outside Ithaca, New York

Electric power plant outside Ithaca, New York

Virtually no electricity is generated using oil, which instead fuels far more than 90 percent of U.S. transportation. The report goes on to say that reducing or eliminating oil use in vehicular transport is consequently more important than efforts to clean up the electric grid.

The DoE analysis, which was released yesterday, is the first to assess the department's progress in meeting its statutory goals. Similar assessments are to be issued every four years.

The report's emphasis on national security--it also mentions climate change, but as an add-on to the security issues--may be a nod to political reality.

Surveys show that increasing numbers of U.S. citizens do not believe in climate change caused by human activities, so national security may prove a better justification for adjusting the DoE's focus.

If carbon emissions happen to decline over the long term as a result, well, that's nice too.

An article on the report in The New York Times highlights some of the challenges the DoE faces, noting that while the department makes judgments based on science and engineering that are sometimes then influenced or changed by politics.

A recent dispute over funding for research on hydrogen fuel cells is illustrative. Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu wanted to zero out funding for hydrogen fuel research, but Congress has pushed to keep that funding intact or moderate the cuts.


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