An electric highway to energy independence

Earlier this month representatives and senators were back in their home states celebrating Independence Day. Wouldn’t it be terrific if they had also been celebrating Oil Independence Day? Unfortunately, that was not the case.

As temperatures rise across the country, so does our national anxiety over gas prices. Every summer brings the same dilemma: families agonizing over how much of their paychecks they are willing to fork over to errands and summer road trips, and politicians agonizing about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and engaging in “drill, baby, drill” politics. 

{mosads}The fact is, we will never be energy independent as long as we remain joined at the hip with oil. Oil-based policies — even commonsense ones, such as “use it or lose it” leases to prevent big oil companies from sitting on prime reserves in the Gulf — would have a modest impact. They would raise American production over the short term, but they would have little impact on the world price of oil — which Americans pay even on domestic oil — and would leave America fully exposed to future oil price shocks.

A recent trip back to my home state of Oregon shows a different path forward. We can chart a course toward lasting energy independence by making modest investments in electric vehicle infrastructure now.

With this in mind during the Independence Day work period, I drove border to border in Oregon completely oil-free to showcase the new possibilities of electric vehicles — eight counties, more than 300 miles and not one drop of gasoline. Now that’s what I call declaring independence from overseas oil!

Consider this added benefit: It cost only 3 cents per mile to fuel the Nissan Leaf. For the cost of one $50 tank of gasoline, the Leaf can carry you and your family halfway across America.

My border-to-border trip was possible because our state recently completed the first “electric highway,” with charging stations available every 20 to 40 miles on Interstate 5 between the Washington state and California borders. Many of these stations are fast chargers where drivers can charge up in under half an hour. 

This infrastructure is a beginning, but much more needs to be done. 

With a sustained focus on vehicle incentives, charging infrastructure and a little bit of research and development, we could greatly accelerate the adoption of oil-free car travel. But we need a plan and the determination to get us there.

To that end, I have introduced the Promoting Electric Vehicles Act along with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). This bill would create a half-dozen pilot electric vehicle deployment communities for infrastructure to be installed and tested. This deployment community approach would allow us to see what works best for drivers in different types of communities — big and small, urban and rural, North, South, East and West — and use those lessons to create deployment plans that will work all across America.

Our bill also emphasizes investment in battery technologies, which is a key component in bringing down costs over time. 

Right now, the high cost of batteries makes the initial cost of an electric vehicle prohibitive for some families. Battery research and development can help make electric vehicles affordable for more families in the future, as well as pack more juice into batteries of lower weight and volume.

More than 236 years after we first declared our independence as a nation, it’s time for us to finally declare our independence from overseas oil and rising gas prices. 

We have the technology and the know-how to make electric vehicles a true choice for millions of families over the next decade, providing freedom from oil and oil prices. Now we just need the political will to move forward.

Merkley serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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