The United States has long understood energy independence as a central part of its national security efforts. But while commitments to climate change and technological innovation transform the global energy economy, America is falling behind.
In the past, the United States has been restrictive on energy security. America, an early adopter of drilling technology, controlled oil production in the first half of the 20th. At the same time, America continued to innovate at home, and by 2018, newly discovered advances in fracking technology made the United States energy independent for the first time since 1957. This was rightly hailed as a great achievement: As Rep. Fred Keller (R-PA) wrote in a comment for The Hill in 2020: “American energy independence means a safer nation, a safer economy and a safer future … America’s fortunes are increasing.”
But not all energy mixes are created equal, and America is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.
Put simply, the United States’ sudden shift from importer to exporter came about through the shale revolution – a drilling innovation that enabled them to significantly increase their domestic oil and gas production. And of course, oil and gas have long been the cornerstone of American energy production, which was virtually indisputable of alternative energy sources in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
But now the clean energy industry is booming. Over the past two decades, investment has skyrocketed, prices have fallen sharply, and renewables have almost doubled their share of the American electricity mix. Innovations in battery technology also seem to be accelerating the global energy transition.
Here, too, America was once hawkish and ahead of the curve. When the space race of the 1950s ushered in an era of rapid innovation, American investments in solar photovoltaics helped commercialize the once-nascent technology. For the next three decades, the United States dominated the global solar industry, led development, and controlled more than 90 percent of the market. The results of these efforts are now visible to all: just a decade ago, renewables were often considered “prohibitively expensive” today, even without subsidies, as the cheapest form of energy – and their costs continue to fall much faster than their fossil fuel competitors. In short, clean energy will become an invaluable resource over the next few years.
If renewable energy were recognized for even a fraction of its future potential, the United States would certainly quickly become a world leader in clean energy capacity. But America’s commitment to renewable energy has weakened exceptionally over the past few decades.
The Carter administration did not give solar power a priority, and the Reagan administration completely rejected it, crippling the industry with meager investment, record high interest rates and environmental deregulation. Over the next decade, America’s share of the global solar market collapsed, and by the mid-2000s, American companies were producing just 9 percent of the world’s solar modules.
Now the rivals of the United States have benefited from the vacuum left in the industry by the lack of American leadership. China dominates solar production today and builds three quarters of the world’s photovoltaics. A whopping 80 percent of the solar modules installed in the USA come from Chinese companies. America’s concessions to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are not limited to solar energy either: the United States has given up market share in the clean energy industry, often at a breathtaking pace. A little over a decade ago, the US had twice as much wind capacity as China; today this relationship is reversed. In 2013 there were five times as many electric vehicles in the US as in China; China now has double the American supply.
These developments have enormous geopolitical consequences, as the CCP well knows. In the energy sector in particular, there is no economic competition in a vacuum, and countries often use their natural resources as a foreign policy tool. In 1973, as is well known, OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the United States for its support for the Israeli military, triggering an energy crisis that lasted for months. More recently, Russia has punished neighboring countries with fuel price increases if they defied the Kremlin’s wishes. Energy security and independence are not abstract concerns; they have material consequences for American security and prosperity in both the short and long term.
Now that it has failed to compete in the clean energy arms race, America has faced an energy security risk reminiscent of that of the 1970s. China has already investigated restricting US access to rare earth minerals – often critical components of clean energy hardware – in response to US arms sales to Taiwan, and continues to investigate ways it can hinder US defense companies by restricting supplies of minerals.
This is a big problem given China’s near monopoly on critical minerals. China’s lithium production – the element of choice for electricity storage – is ten times that of the US and its reserves are 30 times greater than that of the United States. It is estimated that the US lithium supply chain is twenty to thirty years behind China’s . The story with other minerals is not that different.
This is not because China has more naturally occurring mineral reserves per se. Instead, the CCP is ready to go overseas for its resources – and it is ready to mine with a portfolio that now includes lithium in Chile, cesium in Canada and cobalt in the Congo.
To be competitive, the United States must respond with its own extractive operations; It is expected that this will meet resistance after years of mainstream anti-mining rhetoric. However, as the name suggests, critical minerals are vital and mining will therefore be a necessary evil if the United States is not to wall up its clean energy industry (and therefore its environmental efforts).
At the same time, America must reduce its increased reliance on Chinese energy through a more aggressive decarbonization campaign. It’s not as easy as undercutting China’s wind and solar manufacturing costs (Chinese subsidies make that nearly impossible), but instead requires the United States to pursue innovative new renewable technologies. This certainly means continuous investment in research and development, but also a departure from a national industrial policy that focuses exclusively on technology and not on application. If the United States is to control alternative sources of energy, it is not enough to just invent – they must be commercialized.
It’s not all bad, of course – in the first quarter of 2021, American lithium miners raised over $ 3 billion from Wall Street to support cleaner extraction alternatives. Some of the resulting initiatives, such as California’s plan to extract lithium from the Salton Sea brine, are particularly promising. But these solutions are far from perfect, and the reality is that, despite its vast resources, the United States is currently unable to achieve net zero emissions. To get there, an all-encompassing approach has to be taken – one that includes naturally sustainable production, as well as nuclear, wind and solar, and next-generation technologies.
China’s attempts to monopolize the clean energy industry have clearly shown that leadership in renewable energy is far more than a climate issue. Politicians, national security experts and environmentalists alike are now faced with the balancing act: act soon or fall further behind in a race we cannot afford to lose.
Thomas Hochman (@thomashochman) is a fellow at Citizen’s Climate Lobby. His work has been featured in Deseret News, The Washington Examiner, and a number of other media outlets.