Power play

Power play

During an unprecedented crisis in NASA’s Apollo program, Ohio native and Apollo 13’s flight director, Gene Kranz, looked out across his mission control room and said: “OK, let’s everybody keep cool. Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing.”

Composed, rational thinking. It’s crucial when problems are unknown, unfolding, and likely to compound with bad decisions. It’s also needed in the current debate around America’s energy and electric power sectors.

Guest columnist David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Engineering, and a senior fellow at UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security. He has testified before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on energy, climate and nuclear power policy.

The U.S. economy, the largest and most important industrialized economy in the world, was built and currently stands on abundant, reliable energy resources. Fossil fuels, nuclear power, and renewables have electrified America, energized its transportation sector, provided high-temperature industrial heat for manufacturing, and bolstered its military — the world’s most powerful and lethal.

However, climate change concerns are reorienting America’s energy and electric power debate to carbon reduction, and policies are being proposed for an energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. While nuclear power is not excluded in all transition proposals, nuclear is generally marginalized in favor of the preferred resources — renewables. 

Never before has the U.S. debated eschewing the conventional energy resources on which its economy stands. And for good reason. 

Energy resources and electricity aren’t merely market commodities or climate change issues — they’re foundational to America’s national security. And it has been generally understood that a hallmark of America’s energy and national security legacy is an abundant, domestic supply of diverse energy resources to provide the U.S. with flexibility and resilience in times of economic disruption and geopolitical disturbance. 

This is critical for ensuring a resilient electric power grid: storable coal and nuclear to provide consistent baseload power; flexible natural gas for responding to minute-by-minute fluctuations in demand; and zero-carbon, cost-competitive renewables to fill in when available. Diverse resources, while not interchangeable, are crucial as each resource provides unique operational characteristics that ensure resilience.

The national security value of energy, however, extends beyond U.S. borders. America is facing some of the greatest global challenges in its history, with energy embedded in many of them. 

Russia has invaded Ukraine and weaponized oil and natural gas to create severe shortages in Europe and supply disruptions globally. Russia has also established itself as a global leader in civilian nuclear exports — a position once occupied solely by the U.S. but lost, in part, because of policy decisions in the 1990s.

China, through its Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has emerged as the most serious threat to U.S. security as it seeks to become the world’s greatest superpower. To that end, the CCP is deepening oil and natural gas ties with Russia and the Middle East while monopolizing the global market on minerals and metals used in manufacturing solar panels, electric vehicles, and batteries — the very technologies prioritized in the proposed U.S. energy transition. At a more comprehensive level, China is leveraging its Belt and Road Initiative to help emerging nations industrialize their economies around all energy resources, including fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Over the past decade, the U.S. has established itself as a global leader in oil and natural gas production. In doing so, it has achieved a level of energy self-sufficiency while establishing important energy partnerships with key allies and emerging economies around the world. However, as the U.S. considers restructuring its economy around carbon reduction, China, Russia, and other authoritarian nations aren’t debating energy as a climate issue. They’re debating it as an instrument of national power to advance their interests — interests that often are in opposition to America’s. Consequently, a U.S. divestment from fossil fuels will create vacuums in global energy trade — which will be filled by energy-rich nations eager to displace the U.S. in any way they can.

Climate change is a threat that should not be dismissed, but there’s only so much the U.S. can do unilaterally. From 2000 to 2020, global carbon emissions increased 35.7%, with over 78% of this originating in China. During this same period, total U.S. carbon emissions decreased 22.8%, while carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector decreased 37.1%. This is a global issue with global sources and global impacts, and those impacts will not stop at U.S. borders simply because the U.S. has decarbonized its own economy. In fact, an electric power sector based predominantly on weather-dependent energy resources may be highly vulnerable to impacts of a changing climate. 

This said, the U.S. should focus on shoring up all critical infrastructure subject to rising sea levels, droughts, and any other enduring climate shifts that could disrupt critical services. 

When Gene Kranz looked across that mission control room, he could see myriad instrument panels. But it never crossed his mind to try and get that crew home safely by focusing on just one panel. Yet, America is considering a complete restructuring of its economy to dial down a single gauge on the complex instrument panel that is America’s economy and national security. 

Given that America is facing multiple security challenges from multiple competitors on multiple fronts, this is worse than guessing. It’s gambling against a stacked deck.