Energy innovation critical to national security, too

Energy innovation critical to national security, too
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With looming threats like a nuclear North Korea, national security is top of mind for many Americans. What some may not realize is that investing in advanced energy technologies is a critical component of our nation’s security, and Congress will be making major decisions on these investment levels later this year.  

Better understanding the crucial role of energy technology in our overall national security can help Congress and the administration prioritize these investments, and help keep Americans safe.


From innovations that protect against cyber and physical attacks on U.S. energy infrastructure to protecting the country's nuclear weapons stockpile, our security demands a consistent strategic focus on new energy technologies.


This diligence is especially important as other nations work aggressively to capture the economic and security advantages of new energy breakthroughs. 

Our military’s reliance on advanced nuclear energy technology is more important than ever. The U.S. Navy’s unparalleled nuclear capabilities and preparedness are critical, and they rely on investments in civilian programs to maintain a workforce and supply chain that support our readiness in often subtle ways.

The Navy runs on nuclear energy, operating 83 reactors on submarines and aircraft carriers. Not only are civilian nuclear research facilities and advanced test reactors crucial to the safe, long-term operation of the naval fleet, they are also vital to Navy recruitment.  

Job opportunities in civilian facilities are a big draw to the officers who maintain those boats following their service. Fewer nuclear plants means fewer post-Navy jobs and, therefore, fewer applicants for the Navy Nuclear Service.

While Congress debates shrinking our investment in next-generation nuclear energy technologies, China and Russia are consolidating their nuclear influence by offering the design, construction, financing and operation of nuclear plants in developing nations.

In fact, Russia supplies much of Iran’s nuclear industry and state-owned Russian companies are fast becoming primary sources for key components in Europe’s nuclear energy supply chain. America’s preeminence in deterring nuclear proliferation is enabled by its technology leadership and robust civilian nuclear industry.

Past government investments in energy innovation have markedly improved our energy security today. For example, government-funded breakthroughs in advanced seismology, 3D imaging and horizontal drilling and other technologies have helped enable the U.S. shale oil boom of the last decade.  

America is now the world’s largest producer of oil, helping keep prices low for our consumers and industry while dramatically reducing our reliance on foreign oil, while shrinking the trade deficit. 

Energy innovation investments provided a huge boost to the overall economy. Today, approximately 6.4 million Americans work in the energy and energy efficiency sectors. In 2016, these sectors added over 300,000 new jobs — roughly 14 percent of all those created in the country.

We’ve seen this success play out in the development of the natural gas sector. After three decades of research cooperation between the federal government and the private sector on shale extraction, the United States leads the world in natural gas production.

This investment has helped to drive down wholesale power market prices nearly 70 percent ― savings that are especially important for energy-intensive industries like manufacturing.

Skills developed while serving the nation translate exceptionally well to the energy sector. The renewable energy sector, for example, is one of the leading employers of veterans. Currently, almost 10 percent of the 250,000 members of the solar industry are veterans, and the solar industry has committed to hiring 50,000 vets by 2020.

One of those soldiers is Kevin Johnson, a West Point graduate and Army captain who served in Iraq. After watching repeated attacks on Iraq’s oil wells and infrastructure, he realized that clean energy would be a safer way to power America’s military.

When Johnson returned to the U.S., he, co-founded Clean Capital, a renewable energy investment firm. Clean Capital works closely with the Expeditionary Energy Office in the Marine Corps, which depends on the development of advanced energy technologies to increase combat effectiveness.  

Johnson says that the solar industry has provided him and many other veterans with the “mission-driven culture” they crave when they leave the military. 

Energy innovation is also key to increasing the resilience of global energy infrastructure. It should not surprise anyone that Osama Bin Laden built a strategy around attacking energy infrastructure with the goal of disrupting the global economy.  

U.S. leadership in “hardening” our systems of energy production and transmission is critical to protect U.S. interests in an integrated global energy economy.

As the Pentagon motto goes, “A vision without resources is a hallucination.” Right now, we’re not investing enough in key energy research and development programs. In 2016, Department of Energy research funding comprised less than 3 percent of overall federal research and development. 

We must sustain and increase support for effective programs, like the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, known as ARPA-E, which the administration’s budget proposal would eliminate. Modeled on the highly successful Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ARPA-E is working to ensure that America stays at the forefront of global energy sciences.

American innovation has long been the key to our nation’s economic and military success. We urge bipartisan leadership on Capitol Hill in support of energy technology research and development as a key element in improving our national security.

Gen. James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.) is the president of Jones Group International and former co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Defense Personnel. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), former U.S. senator, serves as a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.