What is “Energy Security” and why should people even worry about it? The International Energy Association (IEA) defines it simply as “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at affordable prices.” They go on to note that “Energy security has many aspects: long-term energy security mainly deals with timely investments to supply energy in line with economic development and environmental needs.” Seems simple enough.
US Energy Security was one of the major themes discussed at the USEA State of the Energy Industry Forum held in January by energy association leaders including: Thomas Kuhn – Edison Electric Institute, Mike Sommers – American Petroleum Institute, Maria Korsnick – Nuclear Energy Institute, Karen Harbert – American Gas Association, Jim Matheson – National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Amy Andryszak – Interstate Natural Gas Association, John DiStario – Large Public Power Council, Michelle Bloodworth – America’s Power, Sheri Givens – Smart Electric Power Alliance, and Malcomb Woolf – National Hydro Power Association.
A simpler and more pragmatic definition of energy security for the US might be: “What needs to be done to keep the heat and lights on – during periods of unprecedented demand, with aging infrastructure, in the face of a global energy crisis, sparked by the war in the Ukraine?”
What are the key issues surrounding US Energy Security?
Dependence on foreign oil:
The United States remains heavily dependent on foreign oil, particularly from countries in the Middle East. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2021 approximately 28% (or 3.15 million barrels per day) of net crude oil and petroleum products comes from foreign sources. This dependence can create vulnerabilities in the event of political instability or supply disruptions. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine caused significant turmoil in global oil markets. In response to the invasion, OPEC agreed to increase oil production by 400,000 bpd in March of 2022, driven by concerns that high oil prices would benefit Russia and help finance its military operations. Oil prices, already rising in the wake of the pandemic, surged to their highest prices since 2008 last year. The US released 180 million from its strategic oil reserve in 2022 to fight the price spike, and recently released another 25 million barrels from the same source.
A variety of measure should be considered to reduce US dependence on foreign oil – including promoting energy efficient technologies in homes and businesses, encouraging people to take public transportation and start driving electric / hybrid vehicles, aggressively developing alternative green energy sources like solar, wind and geo-thermal; and finally, sensibly increasing domestic oil production.
The US energy infrastructure, including pipelines, power grids, and refineries face a variety of risk factors. They include cyberattacks (ex: The Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack in May 2021). Most of the US Energy Grid critical infrastructure components operate in a digital environment that is accessible via the internet. The US GAO (Government Accountability Office) stated in 2022 that the US Energy Grid has several points of vulnerability including grid distribution systems.
Physical attacks are another threat (ex: 2022 substation attacks by White Supremacists in OR, WA and NC). Weather is another big problem. Between 2000 and 2021 the surge of reported major power outages (1,542 events) in the US were attributed to weather-related causes (about 83%). Beyond that, a massive geomagnetic solar storm could knock out the US power grid and internet according to a report published in Fast Company last year. This array of vulnerabilities could lead to disruptions in the energy supply and threaten national security.
Solutions to these issues include enhanced cyber-security measures with regular software and hardware updates along with smart incident response plans. Increased energy supply diversity can help as well, with a build-out of solar, wind and geo-thermal power generation. Infrastructure investments will be needed to help minimize disruptions and increase power generation efficiency.
Maintaining the integrity of the US grid:
A good starting point here is to understand how the US Electricity grid works: It is divided into three major regions including the Eastern Interconnection (east of the Rocky Mountains), Western Interconnection (Rocky Mountain region west to the Pacific Ocean) and the Texas Interconnect system. The US Energy Grid is the backbone of energy infrastructure.
Via the grid, electricity generated at power plants moves through a complex network of electricity substations, power lines, and distribution transformers before it reaches end users. In the US, the power system consists of more than 7,300 power plants, nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers, which connect 145 million customers. U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.
A big challenge at hand is the aging nature of US energy infrastructure. Today, 70% of the US Electricity grid is more than 25 years old!
This whole distribution network needs to be upgraded while balancing the transition to green energy sources – including the retirement of fossil fuel generating facilities. Some experts feed that the US energy grid has been compromised by the disorderly retirement of electricity generating assets. A sensible starting point to this end is the Department of Energy’s “Building a Better Grid” initiative launched in 2022.
The use of fossil fuels for energy generation creates large amounts of carbon dioxide. This significantly contributes to climate change, which in turn has a dire impact on the environment (contributing to extreme weather from hurricanes to changing atmospheric rivers, droughts, and wildfires), public health, and the economy. The US grid has been pushed to the edge by extreme weather (Example: Holiday season 2021-22 Winter Storm Elliott) Increasing the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, can help mitigate these impacts, but transitioning to a more sustainable energy system will take a long time, require significant capital investment and regulatory policy changes.
The solution to this problem is straightforward – we need to make a fast switch to renewable low-carbon energy sources, with greenhouse gas emissions in alignment with the 2015 Paris agreement. The UN offers a sobering look at causes and effects of climate change, which poses many risks to human beings and all other forms of life on Earth.
Energy price volatility:
Has a big impact on US energy security because it can make it challenging for companies to plan for their future, invest in new projects, and make decisions about production and consumption. This uncertainty can lead to a decrease in investments in the energy sector and can result in lower production, which in turn can lead to shortages and prices spikes. In addition, volatile fossil fuel prices are a key driver of inflation and have historically helped trigger recessions.
Price volatility also adversely impact US energy security by increasing dependence on foreign energy sources. High prices make imported energy more cost-efficient than domestic sources, compounding the energy security issue as noted earlier.
All this begs the question: Should the US walk away from fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources? A pragmatic approach to achieving US energy security dictates that fossil fuels will need to be a part of the long-term US energy strategy. Their electric generation capacity is needed at peak periods (like cold snaps and heat waves) to avoid jeopardizing the viability of the US energy grids. Consider when the Texas energy grid almost failed in February of 2021 during a severe winter storm that caused record-low temperatures and increased energy demand. Power outages impacted millions of people across the state for several days. Many power plants, particularly those that rely on natural gas, were forced offline due to freezing temperatures and other weather-related issues.
The recent IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) will help fund the transition to green energy. Renewable energy will bring most of our energy consumption into the electric sector that has historically produced stable energy prices. We also need to push for sensible permitting reform and smart management of the retirement of fossil fuel generation facilities that will help the US maintain energy security, while working towards much needed carbon reduction.
Nothing less that the welfare of future generations and the global ecosystem is at stake.
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