Pick Just One New Infrastructure, America

The electric grid is in first place in the race for an alternative-fuel infrastructure.


Everyone has an opinion as to how the U.S. can kick its oil addiction. We all have lots of ideas, and that’s the problem. We can only afford one solution and our timing could not be worse.

The nation’s infrastructure badly needs repair. Roads need to be repaved, bridges need to be rebuilt, ports need be improved, and airports need to be upgraded. So much of what was built during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations has reached the end of its useful life. It’s old!

And this comes at a time when the country is almost bankrupt. The feds don’t have any money. The states are slashing spending. Many municipalities are teetering on the brink of financial disaster. And we, the citizenry, are dead set against raising taxes.

On top of this, we’re faced with the need to build new infrastructures for alternative vehicles. Electric-vehicle proponents want to see a national smart grid put in place. Fuel-cell advocates want a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure built. Biofuels supporters favor pipelines bring those fuels to market. The same goes for natural-gas proponents.

But the U.S. can’t afford to build all these infrastructures. Even if the economy were booming, it’s hard to see how all these different systems could be built. We have to choose one.

Despite all the hype, I don’t see any moves to build a national infrastructure for hydrogen cars. And while there are plenty of places to refill your barbecue grill with natural gas or propane, those low-pressure systems can’t fill the high-pressure tanks of cars running on compressed natural gas.

Biofuels such as ethanol can’t be shipped in existing pipelines. And, because biofuel refineries tend to be small facilities scattered hither and yon, it’s impossible to build a centralized pipeline system for them.

That brings us to the electric grid. It’s already in place, it’s nationwide and some small steps already are under way to upgrade it into a smart grid. That suggests EVs and plug-in hybrids have a big advantage.

Of course, that assumes the market will transition to an alternative. I’m intrigued by this new drilling technique the oil industry has come up with called “fracking” that potentially will unleash vast deposits of oil and natural gas around the world.

Yes, there are plenty of environmental concerns about this extraction method and with using more oil. But what do you think the world will do if it suddenly finds out it has more than enough oil to last the rest of this century? My bet is we will use it.

Maybe it’s possible some kind of alternative breakthrough is just over the horizon. Maybe one of those crazy YouTube videos where back-yard inventors claim they can make hydrogen dirt cheap will turn out to be true.

I wouldn’t bet on it. But I would count on the fact the electric grid is in first place in the race for an alternative-fuel infrastructure.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.

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