The Meaning of Energy Security Depends on Who You Are

October 10, 2011

Although there is a vast literature and much discussion about what constitutes “energy security,” there is no consensus on a definition. The problem is that the concept of energy security depends on where in society one sits. At the most basic level, energy security means having access to the requisite volumes of energy at affordable prices. There is also an implicit assumption that access to the required energy should be impervious to disruptions—that alternative supplies should be readily available at affordable prices and sufficient with respect to both available volume and time required for distribution.

From the perspective of a government concerned with its macro-economy and the management of its strategic interests, energy security implies energy policies and standby measures that can be implemented in the event of a supply disruption—and at a cost that its citizens consider reasonable. Such measures include energy supply diversification and a certain volume of energy stock. Governments must also be able to manage the macroeconomic effects of a major supply disruption, including price shocks, inflation, and loss of jobs in energy-intensive industries.

From the vantage point of a private citizen, the definition of energy security is more nuanced but still hinges on access to readily available resources in sufficient volume at affordable prices. Instead of being applicable to the macro-economy, however, energy security is now applied to individuals and small enterprises, such as farmers, businesses, and local industry.

Energy security in urban areas has yet another meaning. Rapid urbanization and rising middle-class incomes around the world have led to explosive growth in electricity demand. Thus, to the growing urban communities, energy security simply means keeping the lights on. For many developing countries, brownouts and blackouts have become commonplace, sometimes fomenting political—at times violent—demonstrations.

Finally, for the poorest populations, energy security has profound implications on daily lives. In particular, a basic supply of commercial energy sources and electricity can empower women and girls, ensure better education for children, and improve health and healthcare services. Energy security is, in this sense, about guaranteeing access.