Op-Ed: Energy Politics and the War in Ukraine By Darrel Smith
The outbreak of war in Ukraine is troubling on so many fronts. The human cost will be remembered long after the bombs and missles stop. How to best respond will be debated for just as long. Some of the hesitancy of other countries to react is understandable and likely right, Other sources of hesitancy are at least regrettable if not tragic. The worldwide impacts on food, hunger, and forced human displacement is only beginning to be understood. The impact on energy supplies, and cost is facing us more immediately. The impact and our response to the stark realities of the role energy plays in this war should cause us to carefully consider, and prayerfully act on a personal, community, corporate, and national level.The response of the EU at this point is a mix of goals to reduce the usage, increase the use of alternatives, and alternatively source and store more fossil fuels.
During the early part of WWII, we sat on the other side of the Atlantic, on many levels not ready to participate. When we did enter in, we mobilized as Churchill hoped we would, providing the manufacturing muscle and sacrifice necessary to sustain the war effort. Having spent so many years in Michigan, I am well aware of the contributions to that effort such as the Willow Run plant that produced planes and the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant. When the Green New Deal was rolled out a few years ago, many compared the effort that was called for to confront climate change as comparable to the mobilization and sacrifice demonstrated in our response to entry into WWII. While it is true that a multi-pronged response is morally demanded, we must exercise caution lest we dig a deeper pit.
The first lesson is clear, even though it appears not to be understood by some of our national leadership. Do not allow yourself to be dependent on despots. The corollary to that imperative, provides a more easily discerned measure than alleged governmental structure. Do not exploit or oppress others. Here ‘others’ means foreign peoples, as well as the marginalized within your own society. Our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights provide a fine articulation of more specifically what that means even as we continue to perfect our execution of that ideal. While international trade in general can improve the lot of all concerned, when we as a country court autocrats to replace the energy independence we frittered away, we have no moral standing.
When we as corporations do not examine our supply chains with the same filter, we lose standing with our stakeholders, the customers, employees, and stockholders on which we depend. Extraction of materials, or the fabrication of components that ignore environmental impact or exploit labor is as shaky as the historically recognized risk of trading in the midst of political instability. As we pivot to both support the EU in their efforts to wean themselves from dependency on Russian gas and oil, and do likewise ourselves to reduce the impact of stopping our import of Russian oil, we may find ourselves hampered by the dependency of our supply chains on the same weak links. Our current favorites for more intensive utilization of renewable energy include much more Ni-Cad, and Li-Ion batteries. We will quickly encounter the influence of Russia on the global nickel market.
Recognizing the nickel issue may have influenced the EU plan, which gives much more emphasis on Green Hydrogen than batteries as it seeks to electrify Europe. In truth, as an all knowing central planner, I would have favored Green Hydrogen over batteries. I am constrained not only by my lack of authority to impose this, but also a recognition that we must beware of the hubris of man. ( Allowing women into those decisions may not fully solve the issue.) When I reflect on the sustainability directives of a decade ago where the US favored ethanol, and Europe favored clean diesel, I am reminded that neither central plan was right. Both initiatives masqueraded the monied influence on policy as science. Hypothesis should be rigorously proved through empirical scientific testing before widespread policy mandates. Mathematical models are helpful when comparing options, but they are not rigorous empirical proof. We don’t know what assumptions are missing or wrong, if we don’t know. If we pause to examine it in an unbiased manner we also see that many fruitful hypotheses and inventions are inspired by faith not brute force trial and error.
While I can certainly envision a quaint European village, or even my adopted hometown of Silverton OR, with solar panels on most roofs, the natural gas furnaces replaced by heat pumps and people walking, or riding their bikes more than jumping in their cars to run errands there are roadblocks and missing pieces. I recall when GM put solar arrays in parking lots to provide direct charging of EVs from a renewable source, I was tempted. Then I realized that given how few spots there were, I would have to get to work before 6:30 every morning to take advantage of it. I still believe that charging your EV at work from solar panels without intervening transmission or storage is the ideal, but I don’t see many employers offering that as a way to get folks back to the office yet. That also implies an advantage for limiting work to the primary hours of daylight. That would make both commuting and direct power of the industrial processes from onsite solar more feasible. It would, however, disadvantage the 24-hour use of capacity and the capital intensive facilities required by some industries.
If then we are suspicious of central planning even if it wasn’t waiting for the shift in political winds, what can we do to mobilize to support the folks in Europe trying to free themselves from dependence on Russian fossil fuels? There may not be one answer for everyone across the country let alone the world. A frequent argument against quickly phasing out fossil fuels as a ready source of energy, is ‘what about the remote village still suffering needless health effects of burning scrub and dung for cook fires’. Perhaps local solar arrays without long transmission lines might be more effective with a little help from wealthy nations, and less loans from China for coal fired plants. We don’t have the domestic capacity to put PV panels on enough homes quickly enough, but if we can clear the financial hindrances, we may be able to create the demand which will yield the manufacturing and extraction capacity we need to make a difference here and abroad. While we wait and push for the breakthroughs to make either battery, hydrogen, or other unforeseen technology more just and cost effective, we can explore locally available options for smart grid independence and off-peak energy. There was a time when local hydro power was an early contributor to the energy that powered local industry. If we focus locally and share our successes and failures we can move forward. We can collectively learn from each other without assuming that any of us have all the answers today.