Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil is about ending America's addiction to oil in the short run, and eliminating carbon-additive energy sources in the long run. As you might presume from the title, Zubrin's current motivation revolves around the West's indirect funding of terrorists who would be happy to destroy it. Even if this is not your motivation, I encourage you to check out this book, as the policy proposals are also appropriate for those with primarily environmental goals. And while you're at it, read the chapter that provides a mere gloss on the treachery of the petroleum parasites we are enabling. Those doubting the direct connection between energy policy and terror might take a look at just one recent example of Saudi perfidy.
Zubrin's prescription for the short run is simply stated: Require all passenger vehicles sold in the US to be capable of handling arbitrary mixtures of gasoline, ethanol and methanol, a design called flex-fuel. As he documents, these designs already exist, are reasonably priced, and are currently in mass production in Brazil. The effect would be to force the oil cartel into competition with alternative fuel sources ranging from sugar cane to agricultural and residential waste to cellulose sources to more exotic sources. While transportation is not the only use of petroleum products, it is the largest one which is currently not easily substitutable from other sources, and therefore the greatest driver of our dependence.
Zubrin is trained as an engineer, and that shows to good advantage in this book. Rather than fuzzy arguments, you get specifics on energy yields, cost and pricing implications, and the competitive picture. He takes specific notice of trends over time, not only in costs and prices of energy sources, but in the implications of continued global growth. No hair-shirt environmentalism here, but a disciplined look at what it will take for the rest of mankind to have its day in the sun. While I'm not generally in favor of market interventions, Zubrin makes a persuasive case that we'd be better off front-loading the costs of undermining the oil cartel, and reaping twin returns of defunding terror and reducing environmental impact down the road.
One omission I find inexplicable - except maybe to keep focus on flex-fuel - is the lack of mention of plug-in hybrids and 100% electric vehicles. While a very different engineering approach, plug-ins do have common economic ground with the flex-fuel prescription. Both of these directions are about reducing the specificity, and increasing substitutability, of energy sources with respect to the transportation application. To be sure, plug-in labors under its own problems of costs and range, but the more alternatives that are available to a substantial part of the market, the greater the impact on the oil cartel. This argues that mandates should not be technology specific, but focus on reducing the direct or indirect consumption of petroleum products, however it is achieved.
Zubrin's ideas for the long term do not, to my thinking, have the same weight of evidence as his flex-fuel proposals. With a background in nuclear engineering, it's unsurprising that he's very interested in fusion as a long term source. Unfortunately, while each generation of prototype has gotten closer to the magic break-even (and the farther ignition point), these are entirely government funded programs, with years between generations. (Yes, I know about polywell, don't send e-mail. I'll get interested when it begins to approach break-even.)
What's hard to understand is Zubrin's casual dismissal of solar. While in other cases he's careful to work out longer term dynamics such as pricing and demand, here he gives the current disadvantageous costs figures and simply moves on. While it's a misnomer to say that solar is on a "Moore's Law" pathway, there is long term evidence of a learning curve for solar (see Figure 2 at link). Each doubling of total units produced is producing a price/performance increase of about 20%. Given the hard limits on both solar flux and capture efficiency, the implication is that photovoltaics will become much cheaper, but still require very large areas for application. On the other hand, this is an existing market with plenty of customers and with private capital already pursuing many alternative approaches. Dismissing it out of hand does not increase Zubrin's credibility for the long haul.
In spite of these caveats, I do recommend Energy Victory. Zubrin's core flex-fuel thesis is well documented and argued, and it should be included in the energy policy debates that will hopefully arise in this campaigning season.