Hurricane watch

How Sandy undermined the case for energy independence

I am drawing at least two lessons from recent emails and conversations with smart energy industry players about the misery on the US East Coast, where some 1.4 million homes and business are still without power.

First, if coastlines around the world are going to be lashed by more severe storms in coming years, as the trendline seems to show, American politicians may want to reconsider the bipartisan election slogan of “energy independence.” Whoever wins election on Nov. 6 may instead want to advocate greater global inter-dependence in order to best adapt to the intermittent crises.

Second, if you are looking for a new business to enter, you could do worse than backup generators.

In the US, both major political parties have more or less fixed on the idea of making North America an independent energy island that would satisfy all its own oil and gas needs, and export what it feels like to the rest of the world. The notion is that the US will be far less vulnerable to chaos abroad if its fuel logistics system is self-contained within the country. That is, you can have both—independence, and the ability to tap into foreign markets in a pinch.

The problem with that argument is that logistics systems are built and optimized methodically and over time. In a competitive crisis in which numerous nations are after the same fuel, it would be high risk to rely on the ability to jump into the market and satisfy the fuel needs, say, of the entire US East Coast.

Those more than one million dark dwellings and offices and the gas lines that stretch for blocks are testimony that very quickly, an otherwise open nation can turn into a lonely, isolated place.

“You want a globally traded commodity to be able to be traded globally so that when you are in a fix you’ve got alternatives,” Frank Verrastro, director of the energy security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me by phone. “This year, sloganeering wins out over facts. But you really need to think some of this stuff through.”

Here is a prescient interactive put together by architecture2030.org on what flooding along the US coastlines may look like in future years. This is a global set of circumstances—it turns out that, around the world, people like to live along their coastlines. And many of the world’s economic centers are by the water–research suggests they owe their prosperity at least in part to that.

As for what to do now, we now know that the main problem on the US East Coast has been the vulnerable electric infrastructure. When I lived in Asia—in the Philippines, then in Pakistan and Afghanistan—among the smartest things you did was have a small (or large) generator in order to get through the predictable electric outages. Until the US is politically prepared to spend at least tens of billions of dollars to protect against the storms just on the East Coast, Americans are looking at a generator boom.

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