On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan R. Brouillette spoke before the Council on Foreign Relations, in a conversation moderated by IHS Markit chairman and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel H. Yergin, on emerging policy imperatives in U.S. energy security.

Secretary Brouillette noted that the DoE has been the “sector-specific agency for energy” ever since the 2015 passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation(FAST) act. This act made DoE responsible for the cybersecurity of the U.S. electric grid and other matters related to energy infrastructure: matters that have assumed greater geopolitical urgency in recent years.

Sees China grid threat

“As we’ve seen nation-states around the world change their doctrines and relationships toward the U.S., it’s become an increasing concern for those of us with these responsibilities,” he said. “China, in particular has been very aggressive over the course of the last five or six-seven years, challenging us in ways we could not have imagined a decade ago. We’re going to be ever vigilant about that activity.”

He pointed to the Department of Energy’s support of new quantum technologies, notably at the Argonne National Lab, where scientists have developed roughly 52 miles of a quantum entangled internet, that he says mitigate the threat of foreign cyberattacks of the U.S. electricity grid, saying it’s “very difficult, if not impossible, at this point in time to hack that sort of Internet.”

Next-gen nuclear

Secretary Brouillette devoted particular attention to the Department’s support for emerging technologies in nuclear energy, particularly small, modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs.

“The beauty of these types of reactors is—one, you don’t have to spend the equivalent of a small country GDP in order to build an electric generation facility. We’re all familiar with the larger facilities that produce 1GW or 2 GW, very large amounts of electricity. Those things are quite expensive. These smaller ones [reactors] can be scaled up anywhere from 1MW to 25MW or 50 MW, which allows a smaller entity like a state or community to site these very effectively, and afford them, much more so than they could in the past.”

Brouillette said that the Department of Energy has projects underway in Ohio, as well as at the Idaho National Laboratory, for the development new nuclear fuels, including some high-assay LEU (low-enriched uranium) fuels for use in advanced reactors.
Some of these fuels may come to market over the next five to seven years.

He said that these next-generation fuels are developed to be accident-tolerant—meaning that if cooling systems inside a reactor were to go offline, the reactor itself would shut down without any release of radioactivity, precluding the onset of a “Chernobyl-type event” (nuclear accident). Additionally, he said, these emerging fuels are “non-proliferant,” meaning that they can’t be used to fabricate warheads.

“We think it’s an exciting new world. We think it answers the question for many who are concerned about climate change and seeking decoarbonization or lower amounts of carbon emissions in their respective governments. This is an emissions-free technology, and we think a very important part of any energy portfolio anywhere in the world,” he said.

LNG diplomacy

But it’s not just in the next-generation nuclear energy field that the U.S. is flexing its geopolitical brawn. Secretary Brouillette spoke about the outlook for U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and its significance for global energy security: a development that Brouillette said has “changed the world dynamic.”

“In places like Europe, in particular, we’ve seen a lessened dependence to some degree on Russian gas or Gazprom. We’ve seen nation-states come to us—primarily Poland, Lithuania, some former Baltic states, satellite states of the Soviet Union—and ask for our product to be brought to their shores. They feel very strongly that that gives them a level of independence that they are desperately seeking. And we think that that’s going to continue.

He added that he predicts larger countries—specifically India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been outspoken about the strategic importance of U.S. LNG to India—will want to continue pursuing their own energy independence and security using U.S. natural gas.

Brouillette observed that the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that does not have so-called destination clauses in its LNG contracts. This means that importing countries can buy LNG from U.S. producers and resell the commodity on the open ocean if they can get a better offer, creating an economic opportunity at today’s pricing for those countries—as well as a market for U.S. producers.

He said that increasingly tense relations between the U.S. and China on energy (and other) matters would likely continue for the foreseeable future and across U.S. party lines, but implied that developing a market for U.S. energy commodities in China had as much to do with a lack of export infrastructure on the U.S. West Coast—such as a permitted export facility in Washington, Oregon or California to allow the export of natural gas or crude oil, it would make U.S. products more competitive for the China market.

Europe’s deal

In Europe, meanwhile, Brouillette said the U.S. is pursuing tough conversations with its NATO counterparts—particularly those in Germany—on the region’s rising dependence on Russian gas. Conversations have centered on Nordstream II, a pipeline currently being built from Russia that would terminate in Northern Germany.

“It’s very difficult for us to ask the American people to provide funding for the defense of Germany, in this case, or the defense of NATO members more broadly, and protect them against a country that they’re providing economic assistance to in the form of the purchases of gas,” Brouillette said. “So we have to ask ourselves—and we have asked them—some very fundamental questions around this dependency. We’re beginning to see some progress on this—Poland, Lithuania, some other Baltic States—have moved quickly away from Russian gas, and that’s created a level of energy security that we think is important, not only for them, but all of Europe.”

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