Energy Security is not Created Equal

by William George

Energy security is an issue that affects countries worldwide. Factors like geography, climate, and existing infrastructure can serve as an advantage for some countries and as a great disadvantage for others. In short, energy security is not created equal.


An oil pumpjack and wind turbines, side by side in Texas (BBC World Service/Flickr)

Energy security is frequently defined as a country’s ability to carry out foreign policy independently of how it uses energy domestically. There are three key energy source characteristics required for energy security: availability, affordability, and flexibility. While these prerequisites apply to countries universally, individual challenges vary according to region and circumstance. Geography, climate, and existing infrastructure can serve as a boon for some countries and as a great disadvantage for others. Although a common goal, each country’s path toward energy security depends on its specific situation. In short, energy security is not created equal.

 A host of factors affects a country’s energy security. A country’s geography, natural environment, and presence of key natural resources can make all the difference. For example, Costa Rica’s abundance of volcanoes means it can rely heavily on geothermal energy. Coupled with Costa Rica’s traditionally high levels of wind, sunlight, and rainfall, renewables reign supreme in the Central American nation. As a result, Costa Rica spent the first 75 days of 2015 running on 100 percent renewable energy: an ideal situation for any country.

But the attributes that allow Costa Rica to achieve such success are characteristic of a specific region and country profile, and the situation in Costa Rica is hardly sustainable for a larger, more industrialized country with heavier infrastructure. Larger nations will need to rely on different methods to enhance their energy security.

The United States is a prime example of a country too large to follow Costa Rica’s prescription for energy security. While the presence of renewables in the United States is growing, the country’s sheer size, population density, and lack of necessary infrastructure limits the impact renewables have on its energy security as a whole. In recent years, however, shale oil and natural gas production have proliferated domestically. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, shale gas production alone increased from 10 billion cubic feet (bcf) per day in 2010 to nearly 30 million bcf per day by mid-2013. As a result, the United States has begun exploring opportunities to export liquid natural gas, or LNG (federal laws prohibit the export of crude oil) to countries in the Caribbean and elsewhere. The United States is pursuing a strategy vastly different from that of Costa Rica, yet both countries have taken advantage of their unique characteristics to work toward the same goal: reducing energy dependence in order to achieve energy security.

And it is this issue of energy dependence that hampers most countries’ efforts toward energy security. Reliance on another nation for a country’s energy all but guarantees that none of the three prerequisites of energy security—availability, affordability, and flexibility—will be met. In terms of availability and affordability, energy-dependent countries are effectively limited to what the donor country can provide to them, and the rates they pay are set to the donor country’s advantage. Dependence on another country for energy also limits flexibility. For example, many countries in the Caribbean rely on subsidized oil Venezuela provides through its Petrocaribe program, which in some cases (including Haiti and Cuba) amounts to more than 50 percent of their energy needs. Haiti alone relies on imported oil for 75 percent of its energy needs and owed 86 percent of its foreign debt to Venezuela as of April. If Venezuela decided to end Petrocaribe, Haiti and other member countries would have to pay market rates to import oil, severely impacting their economies. Their reliance almost solely on a single energy source means Haiti and other Caribbean countries are handcuffed to Venezuelan policy. Indeed, one bank analyst refers to Petrocaribe as “more noose than lifeline.”

The solution is to diversify energy sources. A mixture of oil, gas, and renewables has the dual effect of lowering energy costs and reducing dependence on imports. However, countries heavily dependent on imports frequently face huge energy vulnerabilities, and may need the help of willing investors and newer, innovative energy technologies. Renewables are changing the game, and have the ability to enable countries to fulfill all three energy security prerequisites. They are diverse, abundant, and will become increasingly affordable in the coming years. Many countries and private organizations have already begun to invest heavily in these technologies. For example, Japan has promised $20 billion in renewable energy projects in India, and the United States is working with the World Bank and other financial institutions on clean energy projects in the Caribbean. These public-private partnerships are key in forging new relationships and promoting energy security for countries worldwide.

Still, energy security is not created equal. While new energy technologies are brought to the forefront every day (e.g., the Tesla Powerwall), their widespread implementation is still distant, and in the interim developing nations are building coal plants to feed their immediate energy needs and growing economies. These are short-term fixes to an enduring challenge and only temporary solutions to enhancing energy security. It will take time, but diversification of energy resources for all countries is crucial for future energy security, and many nations have already begun to take the appropriate steps.

William George is a Staff Writer for Charged Affairs. He earned an MA from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and has held research positions covering U.S.- Saudi relations, terrorism, and U.S. energy policy. He currently works as a Project Consultant for the Hollings Center for International Dialogue.