Ukraine, security and renewable energy
We are lifelong friends horrified by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. As a renewable energy expert and U.S. senator focused on global security, we see many important lessons to learn from this tragedy.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the way that national security, economic growth, and climate change are closely linked. It has driven up energy prices worldwide, slowed growth, created a food and energy crisis in the developing world, and spiked carbon emissions as Europe relies more on coal to wean itself away from Russian gas. How we respond to Russia’s unprovoked attack will shape our foreign relations, national security, and energy policies for decades to come.
In the short term, we need to do everything possible to cut the lifeline keeping Vladimir Putin’s war effort afloat. We have to slash the revenue Russia gains by selling oil, gas and coal. We support the U.S. ban on Russian oil and gas imports and are gratified that other countries are also eliminating or reducing such imports. Now we need to take smart steps at home, including reining in excess oil profits and tackling short-term fuel supply challenges in order to address the high gas prices burdening Americans. These will follow up on steps the Biden administration has already taken, like opening up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and advocating for a gas tax holiday.
In the medium term, we can use American energy exports to help backstop nations as they transition away from reliance on Russian energy. We have the capacity to do this for a period of time without putting additional upward price pressure on American consumers.
But we should also be focused on the long term. This can be tough for policy-makers accustomed to thinking by election cycles. The stranglehold that Putin has over other countries’ energy is one more reason that America needs to become energy independent by dramatically boosting clean energy instead of fossil fuels. Let’s free the world’s democracies from ever being under the thumb of a petro- dictator.
Energy dependence is not just about the consumption of fossil fuels, but also about a 20th-century system of electricity that requires long, vulnerable supply chains for fuel and centralized control and distribution. During the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces targeted the Ukrainian power grid, capturing Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and attempting to disrupt the Ukrainian grid by hacking the computers that control electricity generation and distribution.
Attacks on electricity generation and transmission have become common in other conflicts, like the Syrian war. A 2021 report commissioned by the European Union found that during the war, Russian and Syrian forces destroyed three central generation facilities, totaling 20 percent of Syria’s capacity, and that numerous attacks on the nation’s transmission lines and gas pipelines further disrupted energy supply, imposing mass hardships on the people and the economy.
Centralized utility systems around the world are also particularly vulnerable to corruption. Studies by the UN, the World Bank, and Transparency International show widespread abuse by those operating such systems, often leading to poor operation, shoddy environmental protection, and resources siphoned off for officials and their friends instead of invested to help serve the public’s energy needs.
Our fossil fuel-dependent energy grid in the U.S. is vulnerable too, not only to attacks by hackers and adversaries but also to severe climate events like the consecutive winter storms that knocked out the Texas energy grid in 2021. Climate change is increasing the pace of such extreme weather events, and we must prepare to mitigate the impact of these shocks on our highly-centralized energy system.
By contrast, renewable energy such as wind and solar can be distributed at smaller scale, supplying electricity close to communities and towns that need it. Renewable energy generation facilities can be built in almost every region of the world and—when combined with battery storage—can create micro- systems less vulnerable to physical or cyber-attacks and natural disasters. Decentralization offers more control to local communities and businesses. Distributed systems provide resilience from the impacts of war, natural disasters, and corruption. They are good for the earth, the economy, and people’s pocketbooks.
Financial advisors tell us to “diversify your portfolio.” America would be wise to diversify away from an energy system dominated by centralized generation and distribution to a more local and distributed system.
Congress has an opportunity now as it considers a budget reconciliation bill that, together with the recent infrastructure bill, can make historic investments in clean energy research and development, build unprecedented and long-awaited capacity for efficient transmission and electric vehicles, and create tax incentives to accelerate our transition to low and no carbon energy.
Virginia is a good example of a state embracing this transition. Less than a decade after being known as “the darkest state” among solar experts for its restrictive policies, Virginia is now 5th in the nation in solar capacity. The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project is slated to come online in 2026, providing 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2030. The Bath County Pumped Storage Station is one of the largest hydroelectric storage power stations in the world. Virginia has embraced a legally binding path to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. With great research universities and private sector innovators, there is no reason we cannot succeed.
Pro-democracy forces and pro-sustainability advocates are unified now. We must deny Putin’s murderous conquest and build a new economy free of the grip of petro-dictators. The U.S. can lead by example at home and serve as a model of leadership in birthing a new era of clean energy and the security it creates.
Scott Brown is a long-time renewable energy entrepreneur and co-chair of Mercy Corps. Tim Kaine is a U.S. Senator from Virginia.