Renewables are a broad category that includes solar, wind, and geothermal energy, as well as anything which comes from sources that are constantly replenished. They’re often discussed in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, but such can also bear effects on national security, which involves safety from military attack by both state and non-state actors, energy security, economic security, and cyber security. In this piece, I will try to evaluate whether the effect of a shift to renewable energy would have a net positive or net negative impact on a country’s national security.
The strongest argument in favor of shifting to renewable energy in order to fathom improved national security rests on the picture that fossil fuels will run out, and in our energy-intensive modern age, this will be a catastrophe for the economy. Currently, fossil fuels are needed for a variety of reasons, including transportation, generating electricity for the grid, and as a base for synthesizing a wide variety of materials. As fossil fuels run out, the shortage will cause oil and gas prices to skyrocket. This will in turn raise costs for the goods and services that rely on fossil fuels, leading to rapid cost-push inflation. Uncertainty will increase, causing both firms and consumers to delay investment. And As investment and consumer spending are significant components of aggregate demand, GDP and sustained growth will fall. Meanwhile, lower investment and unfavourable economic conditions will lead to fewer capital goods being produced, which will then lower the productive capacity of the economy and eventually lower trend growth. Countries that fail to shift to renewables could therefore face long and deep recessions in the future, with little hope of recovering.
This is particularly significant as this chain of cause and effect is almost certain. Firstly, fossil fuels are by their nature finite, which means that we can be sure they will eventually run out. Secondly, the economic effects are well supported by theoretical analysis and by historical evidence which shows that even smaller-scale shortages can lead to surprisingly high rates of inflation. For example, inflation rates reached 24% in the UK after the 1973 oil embargo. It is hard to imagine what might happen when fossil fuels run out and cause the greatest and longest shortage the world has ever seen, but all evidence suggests it would be disastrous for the economy and hence national security. Given this, we can justifiably claim that a shift to renewables would not only be good for national security in the long run but crucial.
Having said that, it’s also important to analyze the short-run effects of investing in renewables. At first glance, these also appear to be positive. Investing in renewables increases energy security by making a country less reliant on fossil-fuel exporting states. This is particularly important as these exporters have historically used their resources as leverage in political and even military conflicts. In 1973 the Arab League imposed an embargo on the US to punish it for its position during the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt, causing the price of crude to quadruple by 1974. Currently, there are signs that Russia might cut off its gas supply to Europe (which depends on Russia for a third of its gas) in response to its pledge to impose sanctions over a potential invasion of Ukraine. This threat highlights the importance of shifting to renewables for maintaining national security, as depending on geopolitical rivals for energy is an inherently risky strategy.
However, shifting to renewable energy could also lead to dependence on geopolitical rivals. Solar panels, for example, typically require polysilicon and 80% of the global supply of this material comes from China. It’s therefore possible that shifting to renewables might only trade dependence on OPEC and Russia for dependence on China, a fact which is particularly concerning given the latter’s rapid ascent as a global economic power. Furthermore, most renewables require particular climatic or geological conditions to produce enough energy to cover the costs. Countries without a lot of wind, sunshine, or geothermal energy would therefore still need to import electricity from more fortunate neighbours, and a full shift to renewables would only change the states a net importer had to rely on.
While that could be enough to dissuade some countries, it is not even the biggest problem with renewable sources. As explained above, most renewables depend on the weather, which is often highly variable. When there is not a lot of sunshine, or wind speeds drop, energy production will decrease with them. Countries that succeeded in drawing most of their power from renewables would therefore find that their energy production would fluctuate intensely. As a result, it would become challenging to ensure a reliable, constant supply of energy. This is magnified by the fact that it is very difficult to save electricity in the long-term. As a result, countries couldn’t count on their energy surpluses being used to cushion their deficits, making the amount of energy available even more volatile. It could be argued that some forms of renewables do not have these problems. Geothermal energy, for example, will produce a reliable year-round supply. However, this renewable source is only available in particular geographic locations, making it an unsuitable global solution. The conclusion is clear. Shifting to renewable energy now would probably decrease energy security in the immediate future.
After weighing the evidence, can we say that shifting to renewables would improve national security? The answer is that it depends. Firstly, it depends on the time scale we’re looking at. A world where we’ve fully shifted to renewable energy is less secure than the present-day fossil fuel reliant world, but more secure than a future where conventional energy sources have run out and led to severe economic crises. However, the answer also depends on other factors. Some countries might find that relying on renewable sources actually improves their national security in the present. Iceland, for example, already produces around 26% of the country’s electricity using only five geothermal power plants. This shows that there are enough reliable renewable sources in some countries to already make the shift yield a net benefit. Furthermore, some countries might be so desperate to stop relying on a specific oil or gas-producing enemy that they might be willing to depend on China for polysilicon instead. We can therefore conclude that a full shift to renewable energy will improve national security in the future for everyone, and will improve national security in the present for a select few.
Finally, we have to consider the fact that a country could invest in solar, wind, and geothermal power without fully relinquishing fossil fuels. This will usually increase energy security. It diversifies the sources of energy, meaning that if there was ever disruption to one of them the others would still be perfectly functional. The country wouldn’t be left struggling to power itself and national security would increase. As a result, we can also conclude that investing in renewables to some extent would probably improve national security for most countries in the present, provided renewable energy is used as a supplement and not as the main energy source.