Last week, oil passed $100 per barrel, local gasoline prices hit $4 per gallon, and analysts say $5 per gallon gasoline is a possibility by summer. In Europe, Brent crude is even higher, at almost $120 per barrel, and fuel prices hit a near-record $8 per gallon in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and many other countries.

Michael Chiacos

Michael Chiacos

To many, this seems like a repeat of 2008, when high oil prices helped derail our economy and plunged the world into one of the deepest recessions ever. In fact, history shows that there has been an oil spike before every recession. From my view, working on clean energy and sustainable transportation issues at the Community Environmental Council, high and volatile oil prices are here to stay.

Even before the recent news from the Arab world, prices have been steadily increasing — even during weak economic recovery. Prices are only going to rise as the economy picks up steam, as is already happening in China, India and other emerging economies.

Luckily, we can plan ahead for this inevitability by making decisions in our own lives to reduce our dependence on oil and the pollution, trade imbalance and other problems caused by our oil addiction.

Electric vehicles are a newly available strategy to avoid the gas pump. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are already cruising around local streets, and by the end of 2012, there will be a dozen electric vehicles in many shapes and sizes on the market. Southern California Edison projects Santa Barbara to be in the top four markets out of 180 cities in its service territory, with thousands of electric cars on our streets within the next few years. The CEC’s new Plug In Santa Barbara campaign is working to build charging stations and make it easier to use an electric car.

Why opt for an electric vehicle? First, they process energy about three times more efficiently than a gasoline engine — that’s why the Environmental Protection Agency rates the Volt and Leaf around 100 mpg equivalent. Second, electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions. When using electricity from California’s clean grid, they reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 75 percent.

Our local grid contains little coal and about 17 percent renewable energy such as wind, geothermal and solar, and is mandated to double to 33 percent renewables by 2020. Thus, electric cars get cleaner as they age — unlike gasoline cars, which get dirtier as emission controls fail (and as our sources of oil get dirtier as we exploit oil in places such as the Gulf of Mexico and the tar sands of Canada).

Most inspiring, electric car owners who invest in solar on their roof are driving on sunshine instead of oil. Other greener options are hybrids, clean diesels, or small, efficient cars. There are now more than 25 models of hybrid cars available in different models from compacts to full-size trucks. Some of the best ones get in the 40s or even 50 mpg. In addition, a few new cars such as the 2011 Smart ForTwo, Chevy Cruze Eco, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Elantra all get more than 40 mpg on the highway and more than 33 mpg combined. Most of these cars are also more affordably priced. Those in the market for a used car can avoid the environmental impacts of manufacturing a new car, and have plenty of efficient cars from which to choose.

The most affordable and greenest way to avoid paying at the pump, of course, is to simply drive less. Carpooling is the easiest way to double or triple your gas mileage, and Traffic Solutions has an online ride-matching service to make it easy. For those wanting to let someone else drive and skip the traffic hassles and parking expenses, Traffic Solutions also has comprehensive information on all the bus services, including long-distance commuter buses. Santa Barbara is an easy, beautiful place to choose a healthy, active way to get around like biking, and Traffic Solutions also has free bike maps, as well as telecommuting support and other information.

High and volatile oil prices are here to stay. We could never drill our way out of our oil addiction, so the only long-term strategy is to use less oil. Let’s design our cities so it’s easy and fun to choose alternative transportation. Let’s choose efficient cars and drive on sunshine, instead of oil.

— Michael Chiacos is an energy program transportation specialist for the Community Environmental Council.