ENERGY SECURITY

National context drives concerns

The concept of energy security is multifaceted, and can cover a number of seemingly distinct energy- and climate-related risks. Now, research shows that public opinion about energy security reflects the geographic variation in these risks, such that cross-country differences in public concern are explained by national energy context and indicators.

The traditional conception of energy security focuses on security of supply and the availability of plentiful fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal. However, the past three decades have been characterized by amplified threats to energy resources, systems and institutions in myriad other ways1,2. To some, enhancing energy security is now about minimizing energy accidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. To others, it may be about averting attacks on energy infrastructure such as the terrorist attack at a liquefied natural gas facility in Algeria, or cyberattacks on electric utility software systems in the United States or Iran. In yet another dimension, energy security seeks to foster technological reliability and prevent electricity blackouts, like the ones in Puerto Rico following a series of Hurricanes (see Image). Energy security is also interwoven with sensitive geopolitical power struggles over energy resources, such as those occurring in the South China Sea; and it relates to the impact our energy systems have on the global climate, such as the extreme weather events in Australia and India, and on our environment, such as the air pollution challenge in China. Moreover, the monetized costs of energy insecurity can be substantial. For instance, it has been estimated that from 1970 to 2004, American dependence on foreign supplies of oil (a form of energy insecurity) cost the country US$5.6 to US$14.6 trillion — more than the costs of all wars fought by the country (at that time) going back to the Revolutionary War (see Fig. 1)3.

Fig. 1: Representation of macroeconomic costs of US dependence on foreign oil (trillions of US dollars) between 1970–2004, relative to other expenditures.
figure1

Data from ref. 3

Blackout in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in April 2018, seven months after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island’s electrical grid. Credit: Jose Jimenez / Stringer / Getty Images News

Where is the world going to get the energy to satisfy a global energy demand that is expected to increase significantly between now and the end of the century? And, from an energy security perspective, what are the risks inherent to the choices that need to be made, and are these risks acceptable to the general public? Writing in Nature Energy, Christina Demski at Cardiff University, UK and colleagues now present a rigorous comparative assessment of energy security indicators and public concerns4. Looking at both individual and country-level factors across Israel and 22 countries in Europe, they are able to examine the degree to which energy security concerns differ across countries but also within them, by analysing how energy security relates to sociodemographic variables across more than 44,000 respondents.

They find that cross-country differences in energy security concerns are explained by general national indicators (such as economic wellbeing) and energy-specific indicators (such as electricity prices, net energy imports and fossil fuel consumption) more so than population demographics. In other words, to repeat the mantra of real estate agents everywhere, it’s all about “location, location, location”.

Demski and colleagues also find that higher fossil fuel energy consumption is associated with higher concern about the reliability, vulnerability and affordability of energy. This suggests that messages to fossil-fuel users about changing to low-carbon sources may need to better emphasize these dimensions of wind, solar and other renewable supply sources. They also find that electric power consumption is negatively associated with all energy security dimensions; that higher CO2 emissions are associated with higher concern about reliability of energy; and that higher gross domestic product is associated with lower concerns about reliability, affordability and vulnerability of energy. The implication here is that some energy security dimensions or concerns are intertwined: electricity consumption is linked with concerns about externalities; carbon concerns are related to reliability; higher economic productivity is associated with less concern about prices or justice.

The only criticism levied at Demski’s study is a gentle one: in aiming for such a large sample of respondents across so many countries, they could only offer partial and incomplete coverage of energy security dimensions and metrics. As they clearly note, energy security is conceived as “uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price”. This underscores dimensions of energy security such as supply and affordability (and to a degree human well-being), but it leaves out other dimensions such as resilience (how fast energy sectors or systems can recover from shocks), governance (how transparent and accountable national energy institutions and policies are), and equity (beyond vulnerability, how fair, inclusive and equitable energy access patterns are). Indeed, qualitative research based on expert interviews, a focus group workshop, and a survey of experts5 and energy consumers6 suggests that technology development, innovation and efficiency; environmental sustainability (beyond only climate change); and regulation and governance are dimensions of energy security that are as important as availability and affordability7.

It is clear that threats to safety, affordability or reliability are only one piece of the energy security puzzle. The diversity of perspectives and priorities captured by previous work, as well as the work by Demski et al.4, suggest that policymakers and scholars need to re-examine their own assumptions about what energy security is, and how it can be best improved.

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Correspondence to Benjamin K. Sovacool.

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Sovacool, B.K. National context drives concerns. Nat Energy 3, 820–821 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-018-0246-5

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