With a mix of nuclear, coal, natural gas, hydro and other renewable energy sources, the US electrical grid is energy independent, Chairman, President and CEO of Duke Energy Jim Rogers told the audience at the recent New York Times Energy for Tomorrow Conference.

Going back to the 1970’s US energy crisis, the idea of energy independence has been discussed, debated, shot down and resurrected countless times. When a panel of energy and environment experts gave the concept a fresh look, technology and natural gas were two key themes.

“We are the energy police of the world, but only get 10% of the oil that comes through the Strait of Hormuz,” said oil and gas veteran T Boone Pickens. Through his “Pickens Plan” he advocates US energy independence and a cessation of OPEC oil imports.

Pickens’ strategy for achieving energy independence is supported by four pillars: Using natural gas as a transport fuel, upgrading the electrical grid, greater renewable use and implementing policies that encourage energy efficiency. All of these ideas were featured in the panel discussion.

“It’s cheaper to save a kilowatt hour of electricity than it is to build a new power plant,” said Steve Nadel, executive director, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. He sees energy efficiency really taking off and believes the US will be able to reduce energy use by half over the long term.

Rogers, on the other hand, said the notion of energy independence is misguided and the wrong goal for an interdependent world. In his view, it’s important to keep all energy sources in the mix, even some imported oil.

The biggest challenge power generators face today is avoiding pressure to choose “all gas all the time.” Given the current low price of natural gas in the US – which recently dipped below $2/million btu – utilities are dispatching gas before coal, which is a major shift. By 2030, gas and coal will account for equal shares of the US power generation portfolio, said Rogers.

Read more on the debate over pursuing a “portfolio approach” to energy here.

Technology, Technology, Technology

The ultimate goal when it comes to energy is for it to be affordable, cheap and clean. Rogers says technology is the key to realizing that goal.

The abundance of natural gas in the US – much of which is being produced from shale and other tight geologic formations – is the result of technological advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The controversial practice of fracking was covered by a separate expert panel at the conference. Rogers said technology will also lead to a flattening of power demand in the US, mainly because of energy efficiency improvements.

Carol Browner, former energy czar to the Obama administration, disagreed that power demand reduction will be achieved only through technological innovation. She says the technologies that reach the market place and become successful do so as a result of sound public policy.