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Why Would James Woolsey Back Solar Energy?

August 9, 2013 ·

National security and sustainability certainly make for an unlikely overlap of interests.

allanhenderson/Flickr“Distributed generation with solar looks better and better to me all the time.” -James Woolsey, former director of the CIA.

What is a man with Woolsey’s credentials doing issuing a powerful endorsement of home solar panels? National security and sustainability, at face value, certainly make for an unlikely overlap of interests.

In his talk—delivered to a crowd of several hundred people at the Johns Hopkins Institute for International Studies—Woolsey advocated distributed solar energy in the form of solar panels on businesses and homes as one viable solution to the security challenges faced by America’s electricity grid.

The grid—the network of power plants, electrical substations, and transmission lines that deliver electricity around the country—is only one of 18 critical infrastructures in the U.S. However, all depend on electricity to function, making the stability of the grid vital to the running of each of these infrastructures.

Cyber threats are a particular threat to the national grid, in part because the control systems for the grid are all available online. Electrical infrastructure can also be severely damaged or disabled by large electromagnetic pulses, such as those caused by spontaneous electromagnetic bursts from the sun or by a nuclear attack. Woolsey noted that the grid is also vulnerable to attacks from, for instance, heavy artillery or ordinary gunfire.

Woolsey's solutions to these threats are twofold. First, he suggested that individual shields should be constructed around every vital point on the energy grid to help protect these electrical hubs from attack—however, this would be undeniably resource-intensive and provide few benefits. Woolsey’s second—and more realistic—solution endorsed the idea of distributed generation and storage of renewable energy at the local level.

The logic behind the security argument for distributed solar is simple. When the energy needed to power each household and business is “coming from your roof... and being stored in the basement,” as Woolsey quipped, Americans are less vulnerable to disruptions in the production and transport system. The more energy produced locally on roofs and in yards, the less impact an extreme weather event or attack can have on the regular functioning of American society. Such resilience to external disruptions is key in an increasingly unpredictable energy, climate, and national security landscape.

There remain significant barriers to distributed solar energy, however. Although much of the technology for affordable distributed solar is “here or almost here,” according to Woolsey, funding for research and development is often uncertain. Further, it takes time for any new technology to be integrated into society. Attention must be given to state and national incentives for solar installation, integration with existing infrastructure, and other barriers to access if the market for distributed solar is to flourish across the United States.

Yet Woolsey's endorsement of distributed solar energy as a security investment suggests the potential for more promising, creative national defense solutions—solutions that create resilient, productive domestic systems while working towards a more sustainable, renewable future.