Around the world, governments, companies, and investors grappling with climate change have made it clear that they want a clean energy transition. But at the same time, their respective nations need energy security: that is, a reliable, resilient, affordable, and climate-sensitive energy supply.

Recent events have highlighted tensions between those wants and needs. For instance, the war in Ukraine catalyzed a resurgence in natural gas production in the West and beyond, as countries sought to reduce dependency on Russian-generated gas. At the same time, extreme weather events and climate-related disasters, be they wildfires in California or a winter storm in Texas, have put energy grids to the test, revealing significant reliability challenges – oftentimes with the very renewable energy sources aimed at (eventually) preventing such weather events in the first place.

Meanwhile, minerals needed to power critical components of the energy transition like electric vehicles are fast-becoming hot commodities. That demand is creating tensions between producers and consumers in developing nations, and with China, which currently handles the majority of raw processing for several key minerals.

In response, policymakers worldwide are implementing regulations and subsidies to protect their countries’ energy supplies and shore up their respective roles in the transition. From the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States (U.S.) to foreign subsidies regulations in the European Union (EU) and the nationalization of mineral deposits in the Global South, such actions only add to the geopolitical complexity of weaning the global economy off fossil fuels.  

Energy security is about sustainability, generation, and transmission

Critically, energy security isn’t just about sustainability. It means generating enough power to meet demand and having sufficient infrastructure to deliver that power to where it’s needed.

Generating renewable energy requires permitting, which can take years. Connecting it to the grid is a key hurdle: in the U.S. alone, over 2 terawatts of generation and storage, largely from zero-carbon resources, remains stuck in interconnection queues. Shifting the location of energy generation also creates new transmission challenges. And, planning is essential to maintain energy security when phasing out fossil fuels – for example, by ensuring that infrastructure isn’t retired too early.

In light of these issues, stakeholders must keep a close watch on geopolitical and technological developments, including:

  • How will Western countries lessen their reliance on Chinese supply chains?
  • Will the U.S. support natural gas production long enough such that long-term commercial agreements will be worthwhile to pursue?
  • How can developing nations be better supported financially in their need for secure energy supply?
  • How are market practices and investment regimes developing globally to support new green technologies (e.g., carbon capture and storage)?
  • What new cybersecurity and privacy risks come with clean energy infrastructure (e.g., digitization of the grid) – and will there be government incentives to help defend against attacks?

The reality is that tradeoffs will need to be made.

Taking advantage of IRA tax credits can have long-term benefits for many organizations but might involve higher costs in the near term. New mining projects may fuel the development of renewable energy technology, but will also pose new environmental, social, and governance issues in developing nations. Similarly, building new wind and solar generation capacity has, in some cases, pitched backers of sustainable energy against those seeking to preserve natural lands. Reliance on fossil fuels and natural gas will also persist for years, as factors such as the war in Ukraine, volatile pricing, and infrastructure around renewables make long-term planning difficult.

Ultimately, the clean energy transition will take decades – and will look different for each country. Now is the time for nuanced discussions that account for this extended timeline, as well as the many changes in this rapidly evolving landscape.

Energy security isn’t just about sustainability. It means generating enough power to meet demand and having sufficient infrastructure to deliver that power to where it’s needed.