For decades now, we’ve been having conversations about U.S. energy independence. In the 1970’s, gas prices rose drastically due to an embargo from Oil Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC) on the United States. It was the first massive rise in prices since the end of World War 2, and it had an incredible impact on American life. This is one of the more poignant examples of why relying on other countries for energy leaves the U.S. government and citizens vulnerable, and ever-fluctuating fuel costs can greatly affect our economy and lives. Energy independence is referenced by politicians and economists regularly. So what does energy independence really mean, why is it important economically and politically, and how does this fit with a green energy future?
Let’s start with definitions. Energy independence is the state in which a nation does not need to import any energy resources to meet its internal energy demand. In short, achieving energy independence in the U.S. would mean we produce all the energy we need ourselves without relying on imports from other countries.
This is related to, but a little different from, energy security. Energy security involves having enough energy supply to meet demand, but also having the production and distribution infrastructure and energy storage capacity to manage physical and cyber threats, like natural disasters or cyberterrorist attacks. Energy security involves resilience and structure, not just the amount of energy resources we can produce.
Ideally, for the most secure and sustainable future, we will work towards energy security and independence together. Achieving these goals will make the U.S. more energy resilient, less economically affected by international circumstances, and far less politically and economically beholden to energy-rich nations. And the best path toward the goal of meaningful energy independence focuses on nationwide electrification.
During the Trump Administration, there were quite a few headlines declaring that the U.S. finally reached energy independence because in 2019, it became a net exporter of energy resources, specifically crude oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, being a net energy exporter doesn’t actually mean that we’ve gained energy independence in a meaningful way.
Since the fracking boom in the early 2000’s, the U.S. has been able to produce significantly more crude oil, which means that currently, we sell more energy resources than we buy. At first glance, this may seem to imply that the U.S. could, if needed, supply all the energy the country needs on its own. However, this isn’t the case for a few reasons.
First, the type of crude oil that the U.S. produces isn’t exactly the kind that our energy infrastructure requires. Our oil fields produce a higher-quality, lighter crude oil, while our refineries are set up to process heavier, low-quality crude oil. So, what happens is that we sell a lot of our light crude to other countries that use it, and we buy the heavier crude for our refineries. Currently, we couldn’t simply stop this import and export cycle and use our own crude—we’d face energy shortages because of our infrastructure.
Second, our infrastructure is insufficient in another way. The U.S. is a huge country with regional energy systems and differing access points to energy resources, which means that certain regions have specific energy needs that we can’t meet domestically. New England, for example, does not have gas storage or production facilities, and because of some shipping restrictions, it’s cut off from our domestic LNG (liquified natural gas) supply. So in the winter months, New England needs to import LNG to meet heating demands. Again, the U.S. is dependent on international energy resources, even though we export lots of LNG.
Third, our energy prices are still absolutely affected by international conditions and markets. This is why, for example, our gasoline prices fluctuate so much. Being a net energy exporter only means that we sell more than we buy, but we still participate greatly in the global energy market. This market isn’t something we control—oil prices and supply are heavily influenced by OPEC, and international disruptions such as the Russia-Ukraine war can still have a huge impact on the prices we pay for oil and gas domestically.
Even our electricity prices are affected by global affairs and the international energy market because so much electricity is still generated from fossil fuels. Meaningful energy independence will result in our domestic energy costs being largely unaffected by international conditions, which clearly isn’t the case yet.
Ultimately, continued dependence on oil will prevent real energy independence. The reality is that fossil fuels are finite resources that are largely controlled by a few nations. Relying on a finite carbon-heavy resource is not a great long-term energy plan, especially given the climate crisis. Also, the fossil fuel market gives excessive political leverage to nations that have fossil fuel resources, and our world and our economy is made less stable because of this. Just look at the amount of harm that Russia was able to inflict on European nations by limiting its exports of gas during the winter months of 2022—this control of necessary energy resources is a deep political problem.
The best path toward meaningful energy independence and security is renewable electrification.
Compared to oil, gas, and coal, electricity is a significantly more localized energy source. Most electricity is generated within miles of its end use, with almost none being traded internationally. It’s simply not practical to store and transport electricity the way that we do fossil fuels. If electric infrastructure is built with resilience and security in mind, this will mean that access to energy should be consistent and stable regardless of international conditions. And generating local electricity also generates local jobs, keeping energy money in the local economy.
Electricity generated from renewable resources, like solar and wind, is more price-stable, because those resources exist in every nation and aren’t traded on global markets. Basically, there isn’t a cartel setting the price of solar energy because there isn’t a way to control access to the sun. So, by moving our energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, we can untether our economy from unpredictable international forces and move towards a more stable, affordable energy market.
Electrification will also strengthen our government’s ability to be an international leader. Our reliance on oil and gas from places like Saudi Arabia has always greatly influenced our government actions, from trade policies to climate action to human rights. When our economy is dependent on energy imports, it weakens our government’s ability to take hard positions against, for example, human rights violations in oil-rich nations. Supplying our own renewable electricity will mean that our government can act more freely without risking our energy supply.
While the U.S. might be a net exporter of energy now, the key to achieving real energy independence and security is electrification. Transitioning to renewable electricity in the U.S. will ensure affordable, secure energy access over the long term, which will benefit our nation, the global community, and our planet.