Energy Security Now A Kitchen Table Issue After Russian Invasion

This week’s Courier Herald column:

This week I found myself in Athens Georgia, back on the grounds of my alma mater and our state’s flagship University.   The occasion wasn’t even football related, as many returning alumni trips are. 

After writing about UGA’s Center for International Trade and Security’s work on energy policy several months ago – prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – I was intrigued enough to spend a day attending their 2022 Energy Security Conference.  The program featured 12 energy experts from academia, private enterprise, and regulated utilities, with presentations from each followed by panel discussions. 

These are the kinds of discussions we need now, in more public forums.  They occur regularly on college campuses, in Washington DC, and in state capitols.  We, the public, need to be more aware of the work these folks are doing.  These are the kinds of discussions that a decade ago might have helped Germany and other EU countries better balance their desire to abruptly end the use of nuclear power, using Russian supplied energy as their bridge to a climate friendly future.

Note first that this not a group of anti-environmentalists.  They are, however, realists.  There’s a difference between picking and choosing the data that reaches a desired conclusion and understanding that there are real world implications of ignoring the data that makes things messy. 

The post Russian invasion landscape has demonstrated that balancing a nation’s national security and economic security with its environmental security goals is critical.  As we consider paths forward for the US and here in Georgia, we’ve got to keep the focus on all three at the same time.

While the national security implications of relying on an adversary for energy now perhaps seem a bit obvious, the economic security implications are complex and far ranging.  We’re generally aware that most energy sources have seen prices spike significantly since the war began, with natural gas prices spiking about 4 times their pre-war level.

The first tier effects that we’re facing here at home are higher prices to heat our homes, though we won’t notice as much right now given the seasonal weather ahead.  We too, however, have been converting coal plants to natural gas for generating electricity.  We can expect higher fuel charges on our electricity bills ahead.

The effects of higher natural gas prices will last longer and have much more worldwide impact than our electric bills.  Natural gas is also widely used as the source for heat in making fertilizer from ammonia.  As we know from introductory economic courses, when firms can’t cover their variable costs in the short run, they cease to operate.  The cost of natural gas is making it cost prohibitive to produce fertilizer needed for the worldwide food supply.

We’re already aware that much of the world’s wheat is produced in Ukraine, and there are doubts as to whether farmers will be able to plant or harvest this year.  Now add to this problem that in other parts of the world, crops could be diminished because fertilizer is too scarce or too expensive to apply. 

We can expect higher food prices.  The poorest countries in the world are literally looking at famine and starvation.  This is where an economic security becomes a national security issue, as countries tend to face civil unrest when citizens can’t take care of their basic needs.

There were discussions of nuclear energy as a carbon-free alternative, as well as hydrogen.  Carbon capture could even be the solution to keep coal as a baseline or backup power source until renewable energy and battery storage capabilities catch up to the need for a 24/7/365 on demand reliable electric power grid.  The nuance and detail of a day spent with true experts can’t be boiled down to a single 700 world column.

The initial takeaway is this, however.  The issue of energy security is complex and goes well beyond a quip of “the science is settled” and therefore you must accept (insert unvetted policy proposal here). 

We can agree that climate security must be addressed.  We need more voices at the table arguing the best ways to do this, and the actual, real, verifiable consequences of each proposal – good and bad – to establish our best path forward.

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