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Energy Security: The "Space Race" of the New Millennium

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Conference on "Energy: Cost and Crisis"
Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

As I begin, I would like to commend the Knight Center advisory board and staff for your commitment to journalism, and, by extension, to the public discourse. Your work to enhance the national conversation on key public policy issues is invaluable. In particular, I applaud your focus on energy, which I contend is the key challenge of our time.

And, congratulations to all of the Fellows. The fact that you have taken time to step back from your day-to-day reporting to examine these issues more deeply, is a testament to your commitment to your profession.

The broadest context for my remarks emanates from the fact that, at their recent summit in St. Petersburg (Russia), the G-8 leaders agreed that sustainable development of our civilization depends on reliable access to energy.

Addressing the world's energy needs is, indeed, the central challenge of our time. Our nation's energy security is inextricably interlinked with our economic and national security. Because of multiple, interrelated factors with international dimensions, our energy security is linked, as well, to global energy security.

What are some of these factors? They include global energy trade and markets, terrorism, political turmoil and instability in export countries, wars, piracy, natural disasters, and overall supply chain vulnerabilities. We have an urgent need to diversify energy sources, to innovate global energy solutions, and to do this we must unleash the human talent needed to achieve critical innovation. In other words we must have the will, the way, and the workforce. I am concerned that, although the United States is certainly up to the challenge, the U.S. is not responding with the focused intensity this issue demands.

We need to have a national conversation — on the challenges, the opportunities, and the agenda to accelerate energy security, and, in particular, energy innovation. And that, of course, is where you come in. Because, as you well know, it is through the media that these conversations occur locally, nationally, and globally. You are the conduit through which ideas can flow and flourish.

Over the next few days you will hear from an impressive array of experts who will focus on particular aspects of the energy picture — oil, gas, alternatives, and the like.

I would like to focus on a particular linkage between policy, innovative technology, and human talent as a means to address energy security, and the threat to our national and global security if we fail to act. We have seen, historically, that policy drives technology choices, and, in turn, technology choices have policy implications.

For example, as World War I approached, Winston Churchill, then-First Lord of the Admiralty, made an historic decision. He shifted the British Navy from coal-power to oil, to make the fleet faster than the German Navy.

The oil-powered fleet, however, was now subject to insecure oil supplies from what was then Persia, rather than relying on local supplies of coal from Wales.

The move forced Great Britain to face a new national strategy challenge — securing essential energy sources. Churchill had this advice: "Safety and certainty in oil," he said, "lie in variety and variety alone," — a prescient statement worthy of note today. Another example is moving submarines from oil or diesel to nuclear.

But the policy/technology continuum does not exist without human talent.

The lenses through which I view this issue are:

  • as a parent concerned about the future;
  • as the president of the nation's oldest technological university;
  • as a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and
  • as a board member of both a major oil company and a major public utility.

So, what is energy security? It may be easier to understand energy insecurity.

We are energy insecure because of rapidly changing world conditions. Start with the growth in energy demand. The economies of India and China have been growing at 7-10 percent per year for more than a decade. With a combined 2.5 billion people, this represents a staggering appetite for energy. India and China are not the only countries rising. Competition for energy supplies is growing. Daniel Yergin, of Cambridge Energy Associates, has pointed out that "rising demand and constrained supplies mean that North America can no longer be self-reliant, and the U.S. is joining the new global market in natural gas, which links countries, continents, and prices together."

We are energy insecure because of the giant footprint we are leaving on the planet. Humans today consume energy at a rate 13 times higher per capita than in pre-industrial society. That is the average rate per capita. Now consider that there are still 1.6 billion people — 1 in 4 around the globe — who have no access to electricity. It is in our economic and national security interest for their standard of living to rise. If their economic development follows a path similar to ours, where U.S. carbon emissions per capita is hundreds of times higher than in the least developed countries, there will be major environmental consequences.

We are energy insecure because of the fluctuating price at the pump, rising utility bills, lack of market predictability, and geopolitics. The price of oil can threaten the economy, because of the inverse correlation we see between gasoline prices and consumer confidence, between the price per barrel of oil and the financial markets. So, when Hurricane Katrina damaged 140 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico last year, we felt energy insecure. When Venezuela or Iran or Russia threatens to use oil blockages or market manipulation as a political tool, we feel energy insecure. This reverberates throughout our national economy, and stirs underlying global geopolitical and security questions.

We are energy insecure because of our nation's aging, inadequate, and vulnerable energy infrastructure. The United States has more than 160,000 miles of crude oil pipelines, 4,000 offshore platforms, 10,400 power plants, and 160,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines. When the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield closed down, recently, due to pipeline corrosion, Americans felt insecure. In August 2003, when electrical grid failure shut down power plants causing blackouts across the Northeast, you can bet people felt insecure, (the same was true in Europe and Russia).

Fundamentally, we are energy insecure because the United States does not have a national energy agenda. I have said repeatedly, we cannot just drill our way to energy security, we must innovate our way to energy security. Oil and natural gas fields are not renewable, even though they may not yet be fully exploited. Once used, the well is dry. Whether it is oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, or ethanol, energy security rests in redundancy of supply and diversity of source.

True energy security, therefore, will require innovation: innovation in the discovery, extraction, and transportation of fossil fuels; innovation in conservation; and innovation to develop alternative energy sources which are reliable, cost-effective, safe, and environmentally benign.

Energy security is a "sleeping" colossus. If we wait until the colossus awakes — until symptoms appear — it will be too late. The problem is that most solutions require years, even decades, of effort. We cannot develop an alternative fuel in a week. We cannot educate a nuclear engineer in a month. When the colossus awakes, there will be no energy security hotline, no 1-800-MEGAWATT.

Innovation, particularly on this scale, requires consistent investment in research and development (R&D), and consistent investment in human talent — i.e. in the "intellectual security" of a robust American science and engineering workforce.

But herein lies the true crisis — the "Quiet Crisis" — driven by:

  • The aging of the science and engineering workforce launched fifty years ago by Sputnik and the "Space Race."
  • The decline in the number of young people interested and prepared to enter science and engineering.
  • And, post 9/11 policy and better opportunities abroad which make it harder to lure international scientists and students to work and study in America.

I have been calling for a national conversation on the Quiet Crisis to address our nation's capacity for innovation. In an open letter to President Bush in advance of his State of the Union address, I made the point that, just as President Kennedy galvanized the nation in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, so too could the President around energy security — that, indeed, energy security is the space race of the 21st Century.

We are in a race against time, just as we were then. We are in the midst of global competition and global geopolitics, just as we were then.

The G-8 leaders, themselves, have acknowledged and affirmed that innovation is critical to sustainable progress for the 21st century, and that education is a key driver of innovation. The G-8 leaders said that they would invest worldwide to develop the "knowledge triangle" of education, research, and innovation.

The conversation on a U.S. national innovation agenda now is engaged. A flurry of reports with which I have been involved over the last few years, by corporate, academic, and government entities, has warned of the consequences if we fail to act.

The President has outlined his American Competitiveness Initiative, and members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have introduced more than a dozen bills designed to improve America's ability to compete in the global economy. He also has introduced his Advanced Energy Initiative.

These and other legislative proposals encompass a broad spectrum of policies and approaches — from research and development (R&D) tax credits, to increased funding for basic research in the physical sciences, to upgrading math and science teaching — all for innovative capacity. For energy, there are proposals related to offshore drilling, Arctic drilling, price gouging, refinery capacity, and CAF… standards for vehicles.

It is time to move from proposals to action. What is needed is a focal point — a galvanizing issue to build a national consensus to act. That focal point is energy security.

Why? Because the challenges are increasing exponentially.

Consider, again, the relationship between energy and development. For any country, affordable energy, especially access to electricity, enables better health care, improved education, and greater food production. As a result, its citizens live longer and earn higher wages. Infant mortality decreases, life expectancy increases, living standards rise. In short, more global development requires more global energy. Why should other countries not wish to develop as we have? But, without new approaches, more countries will be competing for finite resources.

The recent announcement of deep water oil production in the Gulf of Mexico by Statoil, Chevron, and Devon Energy, may seem to belie this, since it would boost current U.S. reserves by 50 percent. While potentially larger than Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, it will not come close to Middle East and Mexican oil reserves.

If we fail to address the energy needs of the poorest countries, millions will remain in poverty — with inadequate health care, scarce water and food, lack of basic education — unable to function in the "global innovation enterprise." They will continue to feel, keenly, the imbalance in the distribution of wealth and privilege. This can lead to a sense of humiliation, to unrest and instability — conditions easily exploited by extremist groups, increasing the global threat of terrorism — or to human rights abuses, corruption, despotism, and other forms of poor governance.

Failure to address energy security, on a worldwide basis has global repercussions with local implications for your audiences.

Many speak of the U.S. needing "energy independence." It is critical that we speak in terms of "energy security," instead. There is no energy independence. Energy security is what we must seek because the challenges we face are interrelated, interdependent, and global.

A narrow focus on U.S. energy interests alone — without regard for the energy interests of other countries — is neither practical nor productive. Again, this is because of global energy markets, the global supply chains, terrorism, and rising economies. While addressing the issues nationally and internationally, the more realistic focus has to be on redundancy of supply and diversity of source. Yes, we do need strategies to reduce U.S. "dependence" on a particular supplier — or energy source — to eliminate economic and/or political vulnerabilities. However, true economic opportunity and true national security are contingent upon energy solutions which can be applied globally.

This requires global collaboration and multilateral frameworks, whose synergies can benefit the "innovation enterprise" needed to provide true energy security.

While these concepts may seem removed from the daily lives of your audiences, they can have local impact. Whether it is the price at the pump, your local Olympic hopeful training with an eye toward air quality in Beijing, a National Guard unit shipping out to an unstable part of the world, a local manufacturer trying to pay energy bills and meet payroll, or volatile markets which affect your investments, it is all personal.

You have a complex and critical story to tell. I hope this helps you to tell it.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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