Commentary: Develop 'renewables first' energy strategy

By David J. Murphy

President Trump campaigned on an America First energy agenda that aims to make the United States energy independent by increasing domestic production of fossil fuels. But this strategy will actually weaken the long-term national security of the United States.

If the president wants to project economic and military strength globally, he should first ensure that we have enough energy to power our economy and military, and the only way to do that is to promote renewable energy, now and aggressively.

We use oil when we fill up the gas tank, take a plane trip, or to cover our leftovers with plastic wrap. We use it to make medical equipment, roads, roofs, and thousands of products.

Oil is special, better than all other energy sources. The lithium-ion battery from Tesla contains just 2 percent of the energy of oil (based on mass). We can also move oil quickly via pipelines and at low cost.

Texas oil made the United States the No. 1 producer globally in the early 20th century, but as consumption began to outstrip production in the 1960s, we began to import more. Today, we import half of the oil needed to power the economy.

Energy independence is the main goal of the America First agenda, but energy independence is a myth.

Oil is nonrenewable. Even if we can produce enough oil, and quickly enough, to cover all imports, something that most energy analysts doubt is even possible, we have just 3 percent of the world's oil reserves while OPEC has more than 70 percent. Our reserves might make the president's goal work today, but it will leave us high and dry tomorrow.

An oil-independent America is still vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of oil. In fact, OPEC's power in the pricing market for oil will always be much greater than ours by virtue of the differences in proved reserves.

Oil prices impact most products we consume, which is why nearly all major recessions over the past century have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil. The reality is that we simply can't replace oil on short notice if prices go up. When the price of tulips increases, we can buy daffodils, but when oil prices go up, we just pay more because there is no substitute.

Continuing or accelerating our dependence on oil will only increase the power that other nations have over us. The president's energy plan will embolden oil-producing nations, ironically the very nations against which he is so vociferously trying to defend us, most notably these three OPEC producers - Iraq, Libya, and Iran.

An America First energy strategy to strengthen national security would move the economy toward sources of energy whose prices we can control and that will be perpetually available. Oil, coal, and natural gas fail this simple litmus test.

The solution is unambiguous: renewable energy. Luckily, we have more than enough solar, wind, water, and other renewable resources to make the change. The devil is in the details with any endeavor this large, but we can identify a few general policy areas that need attention to achieve a robust energy agenda:

Solar, wind, and water all produce electricity, so we must begin to switch our transportation system and other oil-consuming infrastructure to electricity. We need more electricity production - more solar panels and wind turbines - and the electric grid must be upgraded to handle intermittent electricity production from renewables, which the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has indicated is quite doable for roughly 80 percent of the grid. Trump has talked about infrastructure spending, and modernizing our grid infrastructure is an obvious candidate - in fact, one he has already proposed.

Electric cars must be encouraged by policies in Washington. This won't happen overnight, so we should continue to develop domestic oil resources, and as more electric vehicles enter the domestic fleet, the U.S. dependency on and development of oil will decrease accordingly.

The aviation industry and the military are vulnerable in both the short- and long-term to oil supply shortages or price spikes because electrification is not an option. Current battery technology carries much less energy per kilogram than liquid fuels, and things that fly need to be as light as possible. As a result, current batteries are too heavy and too energy-light to power planes. Our military is aware just how vulnerable our armed forces are to oil dependence, which is why they are experimenting with biofuels in jets. Short a technological breakthrough, for our land and air forces, biofuels represent the only renewable path forward right now.

Every U.S. citizen is equally vulnerable to oil price shocks and shortages. Massive recessions respect neither party lines nor individual ideologies. Renewable energy is the only path forward for a successful America First energy strategy that will strengthen our national security.

David Murphy is an assistant professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University. dmurphy@stlawu.edu