By Michael Shank and Former Congressman Russ Carnahan
Editor’s note: Russ Carnahan was a U.S. Representative from Missouri and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a partner at Carnahan Global Consulting, a consultancy that also advises firms in the energy sector. Michael Shank is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the advocacy arm of Friends (Quakers) in the U.S. The views expressed are their own.
At the heart of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is the question of energy independence and energy security. We’ve witnessed this before in previous violent conflicts – whether in the Middle East, Central Asia or North Africa. Energy wars are real and they will continue to dominate our geopolitical agenda for the coming years unless the United States and its allies decide to act.
In discussions with our European Union counterparts in Berlin and Warsaw in the past month – as part of a U.S.-E.U. transatlantic dialogue on, among other salient topics, the annexation of Crimea – energy was very clearly at the core of this conflict. There was also consensus that the present moment couldn’t be a more historic opportunity to ensure an energy transition happens – and soon – lest more wars be fought, more territories acquired, or more people literally left out in the cold. The urgency of this effort cannot be overstated.
To be clear, when it comes to energy security and energy independence, anything that’s got a valve on it and has to be transported thousands of miles across borders decreases a country’s capacity for stability. That pipe – whether carrying oil or gas – is a target for acts of sabotage, political and physical. In 2009, for example, Russia turned off the spigot to gas exports to Ukraine, leaving the country out in the cold in the dead of winter. The Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. is proving similar in serving as a political target, whether erroneously or accurately.
Without question, oil and gas remains a persistent driver of conflict, doing damage to social, economic and environmental stability. But there is another way. And now, as tensions rise between the West and Russia, the optimal moment to make the case for a more sustainable energy transition is now.
The move in Washington to decrease dependence on Russian gas imports and increase reliance on American gas exports – as a way of sending a sign to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the illegal annexation of Crimea and the contravening of international law won’t go without economic and market consequences – is a stop-gap measure that won’t be operational in the short-term and won’t be sustainable in the long-term. We should take advantage of this rare bipartisanship in Washington to go further.
Given that gas is a finite fossil fuel, it would be wise, instead, to view it as a transitional energy source, weaning us off oil and coal, and readying us for renewable energy. Too many people are seeing it solely as an energy savior, upon which we can rely for ultimate energy security and independence. Not only is that an incorrect assessment but sets up America for future energy shocks and instability. This gas revolution will be short-lived and we must prepare for its post-revolution demise.
The good news is that it’s possible to produce electricity with wind power and large solar facilities at the same price it costs to build new coal or gas power stations. The Germans are currently doing it as part of their Renewable Energies Act, adopted in 2000. At the same time, America is increasing its gas intake (now at 40 percent of electricity), Germany’s gas makes up only 11 percent of their total energy grid. And they’re trying to wean themselves off of that remaining 11 percent.
This is the direction America should head as well, adding biomass and other sustainable sources to our renewable energy mix. A crisis like Crimea will only increase the cost of carbon-based fuels, especially if America ramps up gas exports to the E.U. In contrast, renewables can lower costs considerably. For example, Germany’s wind and solar energy markets has reportedly reduced energy prices by ten percent from 2012 prices and by 32 percent from 2010 prices.
Transitioning to renewable energy, furthermore, will give this country a solid economic shot in the arm with much-needed employment. In Germany, the renewable energy sector employs nearly 400,000 workers, which is more than double the workers in their conventional energy industry.
According to the latest Clean Energy Report, U.S. biofuels market stands to grow from $95.2 billion to $177.7 billion within the decade, the wind energy market is estimated to grow from $73.8 billion to $124.7 billion and the solar energy market stands to grow from $79.7 billion to $123.7 billion. And these are likely conservative estimates. Imagine what’s possible if our government prioritizes these investments. The returns will be even greater.
America’s investments in these markets are a start, but we’re currently outpaced by the Europeans. The world’s largest wind turbine maker and installer – Vestas – is Danish, with General Electric not far behind. Furthermore, while the U.S. is investing in solar energy, it’s still behind Germany and China, which continue to dominate the markets.
We can and must do better. America should be dominating each and every one of the renewable markets and selling the technology to emerging economies, like Ukraine’s, so that they’re self-reliant and not susceptible to Russian resource wars. This is the democratization of energy supply, empowering emerging democracies with the skills, technology and capacity to harness their country’s innate renewable energy resources.
The crisis in Ukraine should be a wake-up call for anyone concerned about potential energy conflicts. Unless we transition now, we can expect to see many more in the years ahead. Upholding international law on national sovereignty rights is a must at this moment, but so too is upgrading international investment in a nation’s energy security. And short-term fossil fuels won’t suffice. Much like democracy, it’s all about the long game. It’s time, then, for a rush on renewables. And if America wants to fend off Russian influence, that’s ultimately how you do it.