Solar panels, heat pumps and hydrogen are all building blocks of a clean energy economy. But are they really “essential for national defence”?
President Joe Biden announced he was in early June when he authorized the US to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up its production of insulation and power grid components as well.
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As an environmental engineering professor, I believe that these technologies are essential to mitigating our risks from climate change and over-reliance on fossil fuels. However, efforts to expand production capacities should be accompanied by policies to stimulate demand if Biden hopes to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.
Energy and Defense Production Act
The United States enacted the Defense Production Act of 1950 at the start of the Korean War to secure materials needed for national defense. Presidents soon recognized that the material needed extended far beyond arms and ammunition. They have invoked the act to secure household supplies of everything from communication equipment to medical resources and infant formula.
As for energy, past presidents have used the act to expand the supply of fossil fuels, not to transition away from them. Lyndon Johnson used it to refurbish oil tankers during the 1967 Arab oil embargo, and in 1974 to secure material to Richard Nixon for the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Even when Jimmy Carter used the act in 1980 to look for an alternative to oil, a synthetic fuel. Coal and natural gas were a major focus.
Today, the focus is on transitioning away from all fossil fuels, a move that is seen as necessary to confront two major threats – climate change and unstable energy markets.
The Defense Department has identified several national security risks arising from climate change. These include threats to water supplies, food production and infrastructure, which can trigger migration and competition for scarce resources. Fossil fuels are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that are increasing global warming.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed the additional risks of relying on fossil fuels. Russia and other adversaries are among the major producers of these fuels. Excessive reliance on fossil fuels leaves the United States and its allies vulnerable to threats and price shocks in volatile markets.
Even as the world’s top producer of oil and natural gas, the United States has been shaken by price hikes as our allies turn away from Russian fuel.
Targeting the 4 pillars of clean energy
The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy can reduce these risks.
As I explain in my book “Confronting Climate Gridlock,” building a clean energy economy requires four mutually reinforcing pillars – efficiency, clean electricity, electrification and clean fuels.
Efficiency reduces the energy demand and cost along with the burden on other pillars. Clean electricity eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and enables the electrification of vehicles, heating and industry. Meanwhile, clean fuels will be needed for airplanes, ships and industrial processes that cannot be easily electrified.
The technologies targeted by Biden’s actions align well with these pillars.
Insulation is important for energy efficiency. Solar panels provide one of the cheapest and cleanest alternatives to electricity. Integrating more wind and solar into the energy mix requires power grid components.
Heat pumps, which can both heat and cool a home, are far more efficient than traditional furnaces and replace natural gas or heating oil with electricity. Electrolyzers produce hydrogen for use as a feedstock for fuels or chemicals.
need to create demand
Production is only one step. For this effort to be successful, America will also have to increase demand.
Promoting demand encourages learning, which reduces costs, and fosters greater demand. A virtuous cycle of technology adoption and decreasing costs can arise, as is the case for wind and solar power, batteries and other technologies.
The technologies targeted by Biden differ in their readiness to make this virtuous cycle work.
Insulation is already cheap and produced in abundance domestically. In this case what is needed are policies such as building codes and incentives that can stimulate demand by encouraging greater use of insulation to help make homes and buildings more energy efficient, not more capacity for production.
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Solar panels are currently cheap, but most are manufactured in Asia. Even if Biden succeeds in tripling domestic manufacturing capacity, US production alone will remain insufficient to meet growing demand for new solar projects. Biden put a two-year pause on the threat of new tariffs for solar imports to keep supplies running, while trying to ramp up US production, and grid-strengthening to spur growth of US installations. Announced support for projects.
Electrolyzers face a tough road. They are expensive, and using them to make hydrogen from electricity and water costs far more than making hydrogen from natural gas for now – a process that produces greenhouse gas emissions. The Department of Energy aims to reduce the cost of electrolysers by 80% within a decade. Unless it succeeds, there will be little demand for electrolysers, which Biden expects to see production.
Why heat pumps are likely to benefit the most
That leaves heat pumps as the technology most likely to benefit from Biden’s announcement.
Heat pumps can reduce energy use, but they also cost more and are unfamiliar to many contractors and consumers while the technologies remain in flux.
Combining the use of the Defense Production Act with customer incentives, increased government procurement and funding for research and development, rising demand, improved technologies and falling costs could create a good cycle.
Clean energy is really essential to mitigate the risks posed by climate change and volatile markets. Enacting the Defense Production Act could boost supply, but the government would have to stimulate demand and fund targeted research to stimulate the virtuous cycles needed to accelerate the energy transition.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.