The major challenges of self-sufficiency and energy security
Many countries are dependent on fossil fuel imports to meet domestic energy demand. Achieving energy independence, as well as more sustainable production, has become a priority goal for many governments, but what are energy self-sufficiency and energy security and what do they entail?
Dwindling oil supplies, the concentration of the largest reserves in a few countries, geopolitical problems and growing demand for fuels pose a scenario of unstable and rising energy prices. As a result, many countries suffer from supply vulnerability: relying on increasingly expensive inputs is a challenge for many households that may increase in the future.
In this scenario, governments work to ensure the country's energy security and even achieve the desired energy self-sufficiency. But what do these concepts refer to and what differentiates them?
What is energy security?
We define energy security as the uninterrupted process of securing the amount of energy needed to sustain people's lives and daily activities, while ensuring its affordability.
For the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy security has two main scopes: short-term and long-term. In the first case, security primarily addresses the way in which the energy system is able to respond quickly to changes in the energy supply and demand cycle. In the second, it encompasses investments in energy supply and their relationship to economic developments and environmental needs.
The security of energy supply depends on the magnitude of the risks that can condition the continuity, quality, sustainability and price of energy. In particular, two main sources of supply risk can be defined:
- Technical risks: related to accidents, infrastructure failures or catastrophes that cut off the flow of energy.
- Economic risks: defined by variations in energy prices, which prevent the supply of energy to the final consumer at a reasonable price.
In addition to the associated risks, the world's energy supply is constrained by a number of factors, among them:
- Physical or orographic factors:
Regions with a predominantly sedimentary geological composition presumably have more fossil fuels available than other regions.
The depletion of non-renewable energy resources leads to extraction processes at very high costs. As a result, increasing demand makes the exploitation of these resources viable, which often results in higher energy prices to cover the costs of extraction and production.
Technological breakthroughs open the door to new possibilities in the sector, for example by making renewable energies more viable and productive.
Socio-political issues, such as international conflicts, have a high potential to disrupt energy supply and destroy energy sources, making it difficult to maintain energy security.
In a context of energy transition and the need for security of supply, the concept of energy sovereignty has become particularly important. Unlike security, where the important actor is the state and where there is no room for negotiation on the use, forms and purpose of energy, energy sovereignty puts communities and their self-management at the centre. It is about the right of individuals, communities and peoples to make their own decisions about energy generation, distribution and consumption, in ways that can be adapted to ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances.
The importance of critical facilities in energy security
The Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies defines critical facilities as "the primary physical infrastructure, technical facilities, utilities and systems that are socially, economically or operationally essential to the functioning of a society or community, both in routine circumstances and in extreme emergencies".
This group includes infrastructures of essential activities for a country such as transport systems, electricity, water, communication systems, schools, hospitals and health centres, and facilities for fire, police and public administration services. Although critical infrastructures are similar in all countries, their presence may vary according to each country's needs, resources and level of development.
In the case of the energy sector, they are particularly vulnerable, as any failure can cause serious damage at different levels to essential socio-economic activities.
What does energy self-sufficiency mean?
Energy autonomy is the capacity of a country to satisfy its energy needs without depending on other countries. In other words, its application goes beyond the concept of energy security, as it implies not only a correct flow of the energy necessary for a group of people, but also that the resources managed to achieve this are their own and that there is no need to buy them.
Not all countries have the resources or facilities to produce sufficient energy. Moreover, countries are unlikely to be energy self-sufficient in all types of energy. For example, a territory may be self-sufficient in oil but not in gas.
The electricity market
We review the world's largest exporters andimporters of electricity (figures in billions of kWh)
- 53 United States
- 51 Germany
- 47 Italy
- 32 Switzerland
- 29 United Kingdom
- 70 Germany
- 69 France
- 48 Canada
- 34 Sweden
- 29 Switzerland
Largest exporters (in billions of kWh)
Main importers (in billions of kWh)
Source: EIA (2021)
The depletion of fossil fuels not only makes energy production more expensive, but also implies a risk factor for the stability of economies, since they all require energy to carry out their productive processes and satisfy their needs. For this reason, governments and international organisations are seeking to achieve energy autonomy. And the key to doing so, in addition to energy efficiency and the role of households in saving energy, is the use of renewable energies.
The use of renewable energies contributes to mitigating the effects of climate change, guarantees energy supply and reduces dependence on third countries, as well as achieving price stability, boosting wealth, local production and job creation.
Advantages and disadvantages of energy self-sufficiency
Energy self-sufficiency provides a country with certain advantages beyond avoiding dependence on external sources of supply and, therefore, price volatility. For example, it allows for dispensing with the cost of transporting hydrocarbons and avoids oil spill accidents in the oceans, with devastating effects on flora and fauna. Furthermore, if energy self-sufficiency is achieved with renewable resources, it reduces the pollution generated both in the production process and in its use.
However, the planet's resources are geographically uneven, so countries have more or less renewable resources. Achieving energy self-sufficiency in the short term may or may not be feasible depending on the advantages of some countries over others.