What’s the difference between energy security and energy independence?

And why are the candidates talking about it?

hand turning off light switch on wall

There’s a lot of reasons why we need to be talking about energy security—namely how the term gets bandied about during election cycles. In the first presidential debate, in particular, Donald Trump made a random and offhanded comment about how the U.S. was “energy independent” during the Jan. 6 insurrection (spoiler: This is blatantly false).   

Energy independence is sometimes used interchangeably with the term energy security, though the concepts are distinct. Here’s why we’ve got our eyes glued on both as the presidential race heats up. 

Energy independence vs. energy security

Energy security refers to having enough energy to meet demand and infrastructure that can withstand both physical and cyber threats. In parts of the country where the grid is decades old and built with creaky wooden poles, for example, citizens’ energy security is vulnerable because of wildfires, blizzards, and floods. Energy independence, on the other hand, is when a nation does not need to import energy to meet demand. Analysts point out that it’s not an idea that carries any real economic weight and is little more than a political slogan.

How fossil fuel interests wield the terms

For some politicians and lobbyists, energy security is code for ramping up U.S. fossil fuel production. But the thing is, the U.S. has been exporting more fossil fuels than it’s been importing for a while now. Plus fossil fuels are not a long-term solution to achieve either energy security or “independence.” As finite natural resources deplete, conflicts ensue, such as those unfolding in Ukraine and the Middle East, which leads to an increase in oil and gas prices. This then leads to even more conflict, a nasty feedback

How renewables can create energy security 

There are several ways to make energy more secure, including diversifying sources, making existing avenues more efficient, and expanding battery storage. Right now, renewables represent only a fraction of the U.S. energy mix, generating about 21% of our electricity. But findings from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show it is possible to get to a clean grid in just 10 years. These sources are cheaper than fossil fuels, and despite the issues associated with mining for raw materials, have a substantially lower environmental impact than sucking oil and gas out of the ground.