What Is Real Security
America’s security faces many serious threats. Strategic planners, however, have tended to focus almost exclusively on the military threat. They have largely ignored equally grave vulnerabilities in vital life-support systems such as our energy, water, food, data processing, and telecommunications networks. And they have likewise neglected to safeguard the national assets that form the foundation of our security.
In our 1982 Pentagon study Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security, we found that a handful of people could shut down three-quarters of the oil and gas supplies to the eastern states, cut the power to any major city, or kill millions by damaging a nuclear power plant. Such hazards remain real today. Between April 25 and May 11, 2001, for example, infiltrators accessed the computer system of the California Independent System Operator, the agency that operates California’s power distribution network, potentially gaining the capability to black out whole cities, and cause physical damage to equipment.
Reliance on fossil fuels and their extended pipelines contributes to our insecurity. Even where fuel is extracted from politically stable regions, it must be safely transported via accident-prone ships, trucks, rail, or pipeline. On October 4, 2001, a drunk shot a bullet through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, shutting it down for 60 hours and spilling 285,000 gallons of oil. Previously, the pipeline has been shot at on over 50 occasions. A disgruntled engineer’s plot to blow up critical points then profit from oil futures trading was thwarted by luck two years ago.
How, then, can America become less vulnerable to attack and more resilient to mishaps that do occur? How can we prepare for a future that may hold increasing uncertainty, unrest, and even violence? The answer may be found by basing engineering on nature. Natural systems are efficient, diverse, dispersed, and renewable, hence, inherently resilient.
The most resilience per dollar invested comes from using energy very efficiently. Minimizing energy waste both eliminates dependence on the most vulnerable sources (such as oil from the Persian Gulf) and makes energy failures milder, slower, and easier to fix. Efficiency is also the cheapest way to meet our energy needs.
During 1979–85, energy savings enabled GNP to rise by 16 percent while oil use fell 15 percent and Persian Gulf imports fell 87 percent. This was primarily achieved by making cars more efficient. Just making cars about three miles per gallon more efficient could eliminate all Persian Gulf oil imports. Did we put our young people in 0.6 mile per gallon army tanks because we did not put them in 32 mile per gallon cars?
Another key to resilience is to replace centralized energy sources gradually with many richly interconnected dispersed ones. This is the strategy of a tree that has many leaves, each with many veins, so that the random nibbling of insects won’t disrupt the vital flow of nutrients. The value of dispersion was proven in the Northeast Blackout of 1965, when a power engineer in Holyoke, Massachusetts, was able to unhook the city from the collapsing grid and connect instead to a local gas turbine. The money saved by not having to black out Holyoke paid off the cost of building that power plant in four hours. More recently, in Sacramento, citizens suffered none of the power shortages or price spikes that other Californians faced. About ten years ago the city voted to shut down the troubled nuclear plant that provided nearly half its power. Instead, Sacramento invested in efficiency and a diverse supply mix emphasizing renewables and distributed generation. These investments boosted county economic output by $185 million and added 2,946 employee-years of net jobs. Efficiency plus a diverse, often decentralized, supply portfolio kept electricity supplies reliable and constant-price during California’s power emergencies.
As the Sacramento example shows, dispersed energy systems don’t cost more; indeed, they’re already winning in the marketplace. Major homebuilders nationwide expect to enjoy a marketing edge by providing hundreds of grid-connected rooftop-solar systems on new housing developments; indeed, five Sacramento projects already offer solar power as standard equipment.
Central power stations, no matter how well engineered, can’t supply really cheap electricity and simply cannot be made secure. The power lines that deliver the electricity cost more than the generators and cause almost all power failures. On-site and neighborhood micro-power is cheaper and eliminates grid losses and glitches. Rooftop photovoltaic systems, fuel cells, or biomass-fed microturbine or engine generators can be built on site to provide power for individual buildings or neighborhoods. When such systems fail, the effect is small and localized. If several small systems are interconnected, one failure may hardly be noticed. Widespread disruption of such a network would be difficult because it would require too many agents and too much coordination.
Dispersed systems are even more reliable when they use renewable energy sources. Thus, Department of Energy officials in 1980 had just cut the ribbon on a West Chicago solar-powered gas station when a thunderstorm blacked out the city. That was the only station pumping gas that afternoon. Manhattan’s Condé Nast office tower recruited tenants at premium rents by offering the two most reliable known power supplies, fuel and solar cells, incorporated into the building.
The importance of energy resilience to national security may hold wider lessons. First, focusing exclusively on centralized military planning to counter overt military threats may create costly frontal fortification while the back door stands ajar. Indeed, there are many back doors. The average molecule of food is shipped some 1,300 miles before an American eats it. Damage a few Mississippi River bridges and easterners will soon starve. A malicious PC user could probably crash the whole financial system. There are doubtless other key vulnerabilities not yet discovered, and security experts are only now starting to think about how to reduce them.
Whatever military might has accomplished, then, it has not yet made us truly secure. Perhaps it never will. The roots of real security go deeper than armies and missiles alone. The parable of energy security reminds us that real security in its widest sense begins at home and is strengthened by self-sufficient, decentralized, sustainable communities.
Even more basic in our quest for real security, we should understand the role of our nation’s strategic assets. These include a geography that shields us against physical invasion from overseas; a freedom of expression that shields us from ideological invasion by exposing concepts to the critical scrutiny of an informed public; an ecosystem much of whose once unique fertility can still be rescued from degradation; a diverse, ingenious, and independent people; and a richly inspiring body of political and spiritual values. To mature within these outward strengths—strengths more fundamental and lasting than any inventory of weaponry—will require us to remain inwardly strong, confident in our lives and liberties no matter what surprises may occur. This in turn will demand a continuing American revolution that expresses in works a sincere faith in individual and community effort. It was this faith that inspired our Republic, long before strategists became preoccupied with the narrower and more evanescent kinds of security that only a faraway government could provide. It is that faith today, the very marrow of our political system, which alone can give us real security.
Hunter and Amory Lovins founded and lead Rocky Mountain Institute, , a nonprofit applied-research center that fosters efficient and restorative use of resources to help make the world secure, prosperous, and life-sustaining.
Amory B. Lovins is a writer, physicist, and cofounder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute.