It isn’t just about energy independence, or addressing climate change. It is about protecting the U.S. when the world goes mad.
You don’t see a woman in a wedding dress threatening to punch out a gas-station attendant every day. But there she was, shaking her fist and swearing like a Marine drill instructor. I’ll never forget it.
The year was 1979, and it was the height of the second oil crisis. After waiting in line 30 minutes, the attendant told her Tuxedo-clad groom, my friend and former college roommate, “Everybody gets $3.00. No exceptions.”
That’s when the bride leaped out of the car and informed the attendant $3.00 was not enough to get her to the church on time.
For those of us old enough to drive 40 years ago, the twin oil crises of the 1970s shaped us like the Great Depression molded our parents. Instead of being scarred by memories of banks going broke, we recall when gas stations ran out of fuel and minimum-wage pump jockeys owned our souls.
It’s the reason I still get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I drive an electric car, or any alternative fuel vehicle: I know what it feels like to be unable to buy gas at any price.
Our parents stuffed cash in their mattresses because they did not trust banks. We look to alternative fuels because we don’t believe there is an endless supply of cheap oil.
A gradual switch to alternative fuels and building a national infrastructure to deliver it, including natural gas, hydrogen and electricity, is not impossible. Yes, it is difficult, but the shortcomings do not seem insurmountable if you’ve waited in a gas line for an eternity only to have the pump go dry when it’s your turn.
Spending $25 billion to build a coast-to-coast hydrogen refueling infrastructure sounds like a lot of money, but at the recent SAE World Congress, Charles Freese, executive director-powertrain engineering at, points out more has been spent on crucial energy and infrastructure projects in the past.
The Alaska pipeline crosses three mountain ranges and more than 30 rivers and streams to bring oil from Alaska’s North Slope to the port of Valdez. It cost $8 billion to build in 1977, the equivalent of $32 billion today, Freese says.
The pipeline project was huge and controversial at the time, but the shock and suffering caused by the 1973 oil crisis mustered the political will and public support for the project.
Despite the pipeline’s completion in 1977, the U.S. still could not pump enough oil out of Alaska to save us from the 1979 crisis, where political unrest in Iran and a high-school dropout holding a gas pump almost prevented my two friends from getting married. Fortunately, the teenager relented and magnanimously allowed them to buy $9.00 worth.
If the U.S. can gather the political will and consumer support to build an expensive, imperfect oil pipleline, then it should be able to do the same for big, expensive alternatives such as smart grids and new fueling infrastructures.
It isn’t just about energy independence or addressing climate change. It is about protecting the U.S. when the world goes mad. And that’s important. As any aging baby boomer can tell you, it can happen.