A U.S. clean energy transition can enhance national security but it’s not the bulletproof strategy you might think

The idea of abandoning fossil fuels in favor of cleaner energy sources used to be associated almost entirely with environmentalist movements.

Authors: Dr. Shade T. Shutters and Dr. Suleyman Orhun Altiparmak*

The idea of abandoning fossil fuels in favor of cleaner energy sources used to be associated almost entirely with environmentalist movements. Yet, for a multitude of reasons attitudes have changed over the last few decades. Nearly two thirds of Americans now support the phase out of fossils fuels in the U.S. This shift in values has been partly spurred by the decreasing affordability and high price volatility of fossil fuels. It is also related to the idea of economic sovereignty – that a country should have independent control over the key components of its economy’s functioning and development.

More importantly, U.S. defense and intelligence communities have come to view dependence on foreign fossil fuels as an ever-growing concern for national security. Many of the conflicts in the last century were related, at least in part, to control of fossil fuels, and today belligerents like Putin use the industrialized world’s continued dependence on oil to exert coercive leverage over U.S. allies.

As a consequence, increasing numbers of national security professionals now advocate for a U.S. green energy transition. Such a transition could virtually eliminate U.S. foreign dependence on fossil fuels and remove one avenue for others to exercise coercive power over the US. This view is summarized by former Assistant Navy Secretary VADM Dennis McGinn who claims that a bold domestic clean energy policy may be the greatest step to ensuring national security. After all, since sun and wind are freely available the U.S. won’t have to worry about adversaries cutting off its energy supplies. Or as former Navy Secretary, Admiral Ray Mabus puts it, “renewable sources like wind and solar…are controlled locally and essentially bulletproof from foreign manipulation.”

Thus, a clean energy transition would appear to be a win for all – a win for environmental health, a win for energy independence, a win for economic sovereignty, and a win for national security. But we believe this thinking is naïve.

The electronics needed to capture, store, and transport green energy require critical raw minerals – such as cobalt, lithium, and iridium – in quantities the U.S. cannot produce. Instead, these elements are concentrated in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which produces 70% of the world’s useable cobalt. And far from being bulletproof from foreign manipulation, consider that DRC receives a large portion of its incoming foreign investment from China.

In fact, many of the raw minerals critical to a clean energy transition are concentrated in only a few places. The International Energy Agency states that “production of many energy transition minerals today is more geographically concentrated than that of oil and natural gas.” Thus under a clean energy system, the U.S. will not only still depend on foreign inputs, there are also fewer sources of those inputs than there are for fossil fuels.

Furthermore, many of those minerals are concentrated in Africa, and while China has focused strategically on Africa for decades, U.S. strategies for ensuring national supply chain security give little attention to Africa. This is despite the fact that entities like the RAND corporation have been sounding the alarm on China’s domination of critical minerals for years. And the importance of Africa to China will only increase as China ramps up development of its Belt and Road Initiative in the region.

Thus, the sobering reality is this: a U.S. green energy transition will exchange dependence on oil-producing countries for dependence on mineral-producing countries deep within China’s sphere of economic influence.

Yet, new foreign dependencies are not the only security impacts to consider when contemplating an energy transition. There are domestic impacts as well – the elimination of legacy energy opens up new opportunities for some, but it can destroy the economic livelihoods of others, creating an environment for home-grown threats to national security.

Here we can learn lessons from Germany, which sought to establish global leadership as one of the first countries to begin transitioning to clean energy. Yet part of that transition required the closure of coal mines, which threatened economic disaster for German communities dependent on the coal industry.  The cascading effects of mine closures included massive protests, clashes with police, and ultimately the rise of right-wing extremist groups in local political contests.

Still, despite the potential new risks and downsides, we strongly agree overall that a green energy transition is in the best interest of U.S. security. Our main point is that policy makers should not proceed blindly. They must appreciate that, in addition to many benefits, an energy transition will create new threats. And they should begin now to develop strategies to mitigate those threats.

We outline four broad strategy directions that may lessen the risks arising from an energy transition, though they are by no means the only ones.

Diversifying sources. Diversification is a traditional strategy to mitigate supply risks and critical minerals are no different. But the U.S. should especially consider fostering supplies from sources that are politically aligned with the US, such as Australia and Canada. This strategy includes, when possible, increasing emphasis and investment in domestic production of critical minerals.

Developing the space economy. While the payoffs may be decades away, an embryonic space economy in the U.S. includes the promise of potentially mining the moon and/or asteroids for minerals that are scarce on earth. Thus, fostering this burgeoning economic sector may mitigate the risks of a clean energy transition, while simultaneously establishing U.S. hegemony in space.

Seeking alternatives. One highly effective way to eliminate dependence on foreign minerals is to eliminate their need in production by discovering alternatives, such as cobalt-free or nickel-free batteries. This requires investment in U.S. Research and Development infrastructure, including national laboratories, universities, and firms, that could significantly reduce the risk of an energy transition, while maintaining global leadership in science, technology, and innovation.

Ensuring prosperity of local economies. To avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by Germany, the U.S. should invest in worker retraining programs and in economic development of affected communities. These strategies should be tailored to local realities and context, or “place-based” as opposed to broad, national strategies.

In summary, we agree with the growing chorus of defense and intelligence professionals calling for a national clean energy transition sooner than later. But let’s do it intelligently, with full situational awareness and with realistic, tangible strategies that will facilitate a transition while maintaining national security.

*Dr. Suleyman Orhun Altiparmak is a postdoc at James Madison College, Michigan State University. His research and expertise focuses on energy security, international sanctions, and international political issues related to the US, China, and Russia.

Dr. Shade T. Shutters
Dr. Shade T. Shutters
Dr. Shade T. Shutters is a Research Scientist in the School of Complex Adaptive Systems at Arizona State University. He has nearly 50 peer-reviewed publications, currently leads a DoD Minerva research project on the dangers of economic interdependence, and has previously performed research on megacites for the G2 at Army TRADOC.