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Energy Sovereignty

Energy sovereignty is the right of individuals, communities, and countries to make their own decisions on energy in a way that is appropriate within their ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances. And it's never been more relevant.

We are a world in conflict - with the Russia Ukraine situation, tension between climate change action and energy sovereignty has also skyrocketed. Outsourcing our GHG emissions to other nations has become a de-facto part of the net zero journey in some countries, with investment and focus on delivering innovation that will allow local, green generation of energy in the next few decades to fill the gap. This has left us with a big reliance on the fossil fuel energy of today coming from a few concentrated places - including Russia. The action needed to re-establish energy sovereignty could result in the re-emergence of coal, accelerated drilling programs in fields that were slated for decommissioning, and increasing imports from any country that can ramp up production, fast - and we are on a very real timeline. Winter is when Europe's gas demand will pick back up, and it's only 6 months away.

But maybe there's another option. Maybe energy that's ethical from a human perspective can actually be green too.

The need to think outside the box and innovate to tackle energy sovereignty has happened before. The USA has a long history of policy development around renewable energy, going back to 1970 and the Clean Air Act. This was accelerated when in 1973 there was an energy crisis in the US as a result of the Arab oil embargo. This illustrated America’s huge dependency on imported oil; it drove further stringent requirements in 1975 in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which was partially in place to ensure that the US could continue to function independent of other nations. Basically, the US needed it’s own sources of petroleum fuels.

There’s been more development in policy since then, but in the early 2000’s there was the confluence of high oil prices and increasing focus on cleaner sources, which led to the biofuel industry surging in the USA. Interestingly, it didn’t do that everywhere. The USA had policy in place to basically help fund and enable the production of biofuel from something the US grows a lot of, very well – corn. The mandate to include a specific minimum amount of ethanol in gasoline, grants available to support science and commercialization of biofuels, and high prices for oil drove a huge amount of biofuel production.

The problem was that some of that scientific research was finding that ethanol, for all of it’s literally green roots in corn, was actually a pretty poor fuel; some studies have called it out for being a technically, environmentally and economically inefficient fuel (although it does decrease greenhouse gas emissions in burned fuel). In 2008/2009, the question of using high quality food to make poor quality fuel reached public consciousness due to a drought that hit the corn crop. This sudden reduction in the amount of corn normally available meant that it became a pricy commodity – whether you wanted to use it to make ethanol, or to put food on your table, or as a food stock for livestock. This made ethanol production from corn suddenly much pricier – and more heavily scrutinized by consumers who also wanted reasonably priced food – and drove more ethanol production from traditional petroleum sources. The other key development was the discovery and development of shale oil, which meant that alternative ethanol feedstock was plentiful.

Biofuels in the USA are an interesting example of how a country with limited reserves due to geology (and the technologies available at the time) pushed on policy to help ensure that they had a source of energy within their own boarders. (Noting that it was also with an eye to cleaner air!)

I am hopeful, that with the confluence of crisis between climate and war that we see unfolding, that while we may need to revert to higher-impact fossil fuels in the short term to keep people warm, safe and moving, we will be increasingly compelled to fill the gap with green alternatives as well.

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