After a panel discussion at New York University shortly before November’s election, General Wesley Clark (ret.) was kind enough to answer some questions regarding the national security dimension of America’s energy situation. This piece originally appeared in the Kensington Review.
Q: What security threats bother you most when it comes to energy issues?
General Clark: Over four decades, US national strategy has been seriously distorted, and the economy has received repeated setbacks as a result of our dependence on imported oil. Our alliances have also been pulled and distorted by our allies’ dependence on fuels imported from elsewhere. You can be certain that European foreign policy clearly reflects the sources of its oil and gas imports.
More fundamentally, petrodollars have fueled the rise of extremism and corruption around the world. Our adversaries have often benefited from these petrodollars. Countries like Iran would be crippled if the price of oil wasn’t held up by the quasi-monopolistic pricing of OPEC. Salafi extremist funding is wholly dependent on petrodollars; its rise and expansionism is closely correlated with the price of oil and the flow of funds into the MidEast.
Now, thanks to cyberattack, our electrical grid is increasingly vulnerable, and with it, industries like petrochemicals, that depend on reliable electric power.
Q: The military’s consumption of energy is immense, and as a huge purchaser, it can influence energy markets. What efforts are underway to operate from a more secure energy base as opposed to imported oil? And what effects might this have on the civilian economy?
General Clark: DoD has begun to push for biofuels and electric power as alternatives to traditional fuels. Only the national security argument can prevail against market-pricing, and DoD has been strongly asserting that argument. This will strongly push the commercialization of advanced biofuels, which are critical to give us full liquid fuel independence. This will also enable us to take the energy revolution nationwide, even to regions that may not have underground gas and oil to be tapped. And ultimately we may even be able to use carbon dioxide for fuel.
Q: We have seen power knocked out by a hurricane; we had a major black out a few years ago. It appears that America’s electrical grid is in need of significant upgrading. How can we improve our grid and enhance its security as we upgrade it?
General Clark: We need much better cybersecurity protection for our grid. This has to include both software and hardware components of protection. And, because the essence of an electric power grid is “connectedness” such protections must be distributed across the nation and are really inseparable from electricity users. This requires a new cybersecurity legal and policy framework and substantial investment.
Distributed energy generation is an important fall-back in times of emergency, and can reduce over-reliance on centrally located utility-scale generation, but it is no protection against cyberattack on the grid. Distributed generation is itself both vulnerable and a vulnerability to the grid, since most systems are subject to control (or disruption) over the Internet.
Q: Most developed nations have highly centralized electrical systems. They generate power in a huge plant and then distribute it across the region, but is there a security case for decentralizing things, generating power where it will be consumed? Which technologies are best suited for this?
General ClarK: Our power system is particularly vulnerable because we don’t bury our power cables, instead we hang them from poles and towers. Short of a massive infrastructure investment to bury power cables, these vulnerabilities will persist, but smarter grids can speed adjustment to line failures and isolate sections to prevent cascades of failure we’ve seen in the past. And in these circumstances, rooftop solar and local wind could provide important augmentation in times of emergency. Utility-scale battery storage could also help, as well as, with the increasing population of electric automobiles, the possibility of creating a distributed battery system using recharging auto batteries. We expect renewable costs and battery storage costs to decline significantly.
Q: America’s 104 civilian nuclear power plants account for about 20% of America’s electrical supply. Most of these plants are reaching the end of their lifespan. From a national security perspective, should we build new reactors or change the mix of energy sources?
General Clark: Our nuclear plants should be modernized with newer technologies, including new nuclear waste technologies. Smaller scale, sealed reactors offer promising and much lower cost, more distributed energy.
Q: If you were in charge of charting America’s energy strategy for the next 50 years, where would you focus our national efforts?
General Clark: We need a real “strategy”. Not just market forces shaped by laws. We should press for our own liquid-fuel independence. In fact, we should maximize our gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids efforts to place us as the world’s greatest energy exporter. We need to offset OPEC and hold down the rising price of oil. Simultaneously, we need to implement the market incentives to move us rapidly away from a carbon economy and into a renewable electricity economy. Ultimately, the most profound threat is climate change – and we need to do all we can to slow down the build-up of greenhouse gases.
Note: In 38 years of service in the United States Army, Wesley K. Clark rose to the rank of four-star general as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Since retiring from the military in 2000, he has become an investment banker, businessman, commentator, author and teacher. In September 2003, he answered the call to stand as a Democratic candidate for President of the United States, where his campaign won the state of Oklahoma and launched him to national prominence before he returned to the private sector in February 2004. Clark has chaired several public and private companies, and is a progressive leader in pursuing energy solutions.