Convergence, which has transformed the information and media communications sectors for decades, is also taking place in the energy and renewables industry. I sat down with former Homeland Security policy expert Adam Stahl to review green energy and geopolitics. Stahl, who advises the private green energy sector, has worked in various US government policy roles and studied global affairs at Oxford. Here are the main points.
The digitization of the energy sector strengthens and weakens nation states.
Increasing demands for cleaner and more efficient fuel sources have fundamentally changed the geopolitics of energy suppliers and consumers. The power generation, distribution and transmission management technology is getting stronger and more integrated. However, this digitization widens the area of surface attack for both nation-state actors and cybercriminals. Both traditional renewable and industrial energy control systems such as pipeline distribution management, solar or wind generation, and bulk electricity systems are increasingly being enabled online, leading to greater cybersecurity risks, both in terms of scope and scale.
Malicious actors from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia can now investigate, disrupt and cause significant damage to key parts of the energy infrastructure with the click of a button. A ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline systems is just the beginning. The event disrupted a major artery for distributing gas and jet fuel across 17 states.
Political efforts to accelerate renewable energy are gaining state power for democratic and authoritarian regimes alike. Just as the United States has anticipated soft power with the Internet, Beijing is seeking to stimulate green research and development, resource extraction, and chemical processes to advance its global goals.
There are pros and cons to energy interdependence and the global economy.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine heightened geopolitical tensions. Russia’s arming of energy supplies has pushed up prices at the pump. The peoples, governments, and institutions of the democratic world have come together to condemn Russian aggression. More than 1,000 companies have halted business in Russia, although notable Chinese companies such as Huawei and Lenovo remain.
Companies and countries are now aware of the technological vulnerabilities associated with critical infrastructure. Increased attacks by Moscow-linked cybercrime organizations such as county And Celent Targeting, disrupting, and exposing weaknesses in energy infrastructure in the United States and Europe, including utility commissions, wind turbines, and LNG facilities.
Like Russia, China can use its energy resources for coercion.
Beijing, like Moscow, also possesses both the economic leverage and sophistication to corrupt and disrupt critical infrastructure, a scheme that the People’s Republic of China could replicate on Taiwan. Although Beijing and Moscow have different methods of projecting power, both countries have a “stranglehold” in the energy sector to undermine Western interests. Putin’s disruption of energy supplies to curb support for Ukraine is just one example of a coercive diplomatic tool. China may be short on oil, but it is crammed into the green energy manufacturing market, particularly the production of solar panels and electric car batteries. More than 60 percent of solar panels and almost all of the rare earth metals inside electric batteries are processed in China. Of the 129 lithium-ion battery plants planned by 2029, 100 of these facilities will be in China.
Corporate supply chains are national security, a fact exposed by Covid-19.
Supply chains are inclusive of all. It integrates device reliability, distribution flexibility, and production integration into multiple layers. Global events are increasing the importance of supply chain security for high-level decision making in the public and private sectors. This shift can be attributed to the need to correct China’s long-standing manipulation of the global economy and blatant control of manufacturing. It produces about 60 percent of the world’s supply of solar panels with forced labor and more than 90 percent of its rare earth metals needed in advanced batteries including lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel. Washington and Beijing are racing to standardize the limited available raw materials needed to meet demand for electronic cars that could rise to 300 million by 2040, a 60,000% increase from 2018.
The energy sector has not been immune to these pressures, due to fake production as well as cyber espionage in both the carbon and renewable energy industries. Examples include theft of trade secrets in energy innovation, pipeline technology, wind turbine designs, and specialized software.
New U.S. protections for semiconductors (including news of upcoming restrictions on China’s YMTC premiere, which should help Apple reconsider a flawed deal), fiber and other important inputs are welcome, but opponents have taken advantage of U.S. policymakers’ slow and inconsistent response.
Adam Stahl is a national security specialist with assignments on the Senate Foreign Relations and Commerce Committees and the Department of Homeland Security. A former deputy chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Strategy, Policies, and Plans, he led the development of the department’s strategies for China and the Arctic. He now works for an energy company. His articles are available at The Hill and RealClearPolicy.