Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Energy and Independence:

Thoughts on Independence Day

As the U.S. Independence Day approaches, I have been thinking of the meaning of independence in the world today.  I realize I am not talking about the same kind of independence that the early citizens of America fought for, and I'm not really trying to draw any analogies to the events of 1776.  However, the word "independence" has arisen time and again, so I have had ample opportunity to ponder the meaning of independence in an interdependent world.

The first time it really came to my attention was in 1973, during the Arab oil embargo.  At that time, the U.S. initiated efforts to achieve "energy independence."  This is not the time or place to go into the details of that initiative, but as we all know, the U.S. never achieved the complete energy independence that was discussed at that time.  The shock of those events did spur energy R&D and a variety of other efforts, but in the end, complete energy independence did not prove practical--and one could argue, it did not prove necessary. 

Nevertheless, that incident certainly sensitized the United States and many other nations to their potential vulnerability.  That sensitivity lingers to this day, and has been reinforced--albeit in other parts of the world--by more recent incidents, such as Russian threats to cut European gas supplies.  However, it seems to me the thinking has evolved from a concept of total independence to one of having multiple options--a kind of independence by virtue of diversity, perhaps.  This manifests itself in a number of ways.  President Obama's statement that we need an energy strategy that includes "all of the above" is perhaps the most explicit statement on the subject.

But the same concept works within a technology as well.  Nuclear power plants are a good example.  Nuclear power plants need uranium to operate, and many nations do not have indigenous supplies of uranium ore (or the capability to enrich it).  Nevertheless, there is far less concern over uranium supplies than there is over oil supplies, in large part because there are significant uranium resources in a number of countries.

There are some who argue that the use of renewable energy provides true independence, but even that is not completely true.  Wind turbines, for example, use rare earths, and currently, the largest known sources of rare earths are highly concentrated in a few countries, such as China. 

Thus, while I am pleased to celebrate Independence Day and all it stands for, I also like to think that maintaining our independence today requires that, to meet critical needs, such as energy supply, we must maintain a diverse set of options, both in the technologies we use, and in the sources of supplies for those technologies. 

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