Energy independence has long been a dream of American government, and sits in parallel with the time-honoured American tradition of self-reliance. Ever since the oil crises of the 1970’s, American governments have harboured desires of weaning themselves off the teat of foreign oil, ceasing to be held at ransom over oil prices and out of the clutches of potentially undesirable foreign entanglements.
As known and commercially viable deposits of fossil fuels grow ever more scarce, America looks both inward and at new technologies for achieving energy independence.
Existing energy supplies come from around the world, significantly, much of it comes from potentially politically unstable states. Whilst there is reliance on these, America cannot exactly claim to have a reliable and regular energy supply, certainly not whilst it is at the mercy of political instability, workers striking and so on. This has occurred amongst other places in Venezuela and Nigeria.
In this light, it makes sense to look toward renewables, especially when America consumes so much energy, 19% of the worlds total primary energy consumption and at 6.87 billion barrels in 2011, 22% of the entire world petroleum consumption. America has been increasingly interested in renewables, giving government grants, subsidies and loans to the fledgling industry. It is important to note that whilst the government, and particularly President Obama. has been making overtures toward the renewables sector, there has not been a cultural shift in the same direction.
Approaching energy independence can be achieved, in the short term at least, through a number of ways. Proponents of increasing oil production look to Alaska to increase America’s domestic oil supply, whilst opponents argue over the threats to the environment and wildlife, not least that the oil deposits are located in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, further, opponents argue, this would be only a temporary solution. Estimates range from 9 to 16 billion barrels of oil, which at current consumption rates would give only a couple of years respite.
The consumption statistics gives an indication of the size of the problem America faces. The move to energy independence, then, must be two pronged – new forms of energy whilst simultaneously reducing consumption.
Independence means less entanglement. It means not being at the mercy of turmoil within an oil exporting country. Being less involved also means less influence – something the most powerful nation in the world would surely see as a negative. Despite occasional isolationist sentiment, America is well and truly entrenched in the global system, from military bases to economic investments, the political strength America exerts makes it the most influential nation in the world. Yet whilst it has hundreds (David Vine says over a thousand) military bases throughout the world, America surely sees the value in soft power, which China is gently and steadily rolling out through Africa and Latin America.
As hydraulic fracturing or fracking increases and technology advances, it looks increasingly likely that the dream of energy independence may come true – that is, if there is political will to support it. Consumption of oil has decreased by nearly a tenth in 2010, compared to a peak of 20.7 million barrels a day in 2004.
Yet, in the long term, not just the medium term, it can be argued, as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations does, that an influx of oil could serve to “remove the political incentives for long-term planning and sacrifice”. He believes not using oil at all is the key to true long term energy independence.
Whilst China surges ahead in investing in renewables in its ever growing thirst for energy, it has very pragmatically started a five-year-plan which aims to generate 20% of it’s energy supplies from renewables by 2020. Indeed, there is speculation that all electricity needs could be met by wind power by 2030. By contrast, America lags behind immensely, mostly it can be argued because of a combination of a lack of political will and an entrenched system of big oil wielding an inordinate amount of lobbying influence. Obama certainly seems keen on it, having spoken on the subject of renewables more than a few times but it seems his opponents simply are not convinced, no doubt exacerbated by the Solyndra Scandal in 2011. This inequality in support is evidenced as much by the heavy subsidy that fossils fuels receive, as much as the lack of support that renewable receive. Fossil fuels subsidies could be as much as $41 billion a year, whilst subsidies for renewables amount to only $6 billion.
The need for renewables grows increasingly more desperate, yet the support for such energies seems to be on the wane; Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the IEA (International Energy Agency) says that the annual $500 billion global fossil fuel subsidy is not only directly detrimental to the environment, but simultaneously diverts both money and attention from renewables.
Taking the current level of development of renewable energy generation, wind power seems to be the most credible source of future energy generation. The thus far unattainable holy grail of energy production is nuclear fusion. By emulating the same kind of chemical reaction present in stars, fusion has the potential to provide almost limitless supplies of clean, cheap energy – without the downsides of traditional nuclear fission energy generation.
The future of fusion certainly looks bright, with ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) having been formed in 2007, a collaborative project between 34 nations to demonstrate the potential for commercially viable nuclear fusion power. This being said, the projected start date for commercial plants is still a way off yet, with the first hoped to be brought into existence by the 2050’s. This still leaves a long interim period where new technologies could suddenly emerge – only recently research at MIT has developed a new solar cell that is 1000 times more powerful than traditional solar cells. The problem with many new technologies has been transferring the process into manufacturing, oftentimes not achievable, leaving advances essentially in a prototype phase.
America has reached a critical point in deciding its energy future. The choices present themselves as pragmatically long term or corporately short term. Policy seems to have changed from the former, and edging toward the latter, now that Ernest Moniz has replaced Steven Chu as US Energy Secretary. Moniz defends and encourages harvesting gas through fracking despite the environmental damage it causes, seeing it has a “bridge to a very low-carbon future” a marked change in heart from his predecessor. Whatever the future, fracking will have a large place in it and whether it acts as a bridge in that gap, remains to be seen.