Many definitions of energy security have been proposed in the literature, each developed from within a particular set of perspectives. The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy security as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at affordable prices. This broad, commonly used definition primarily emphasizes economic security. Daniel Yergin states that the objective of energy security is to assure adequate, reliable supplies of energy at reasonable prices and in ways that do not jeopardize major national values and objectives. His definition considers the cultural and political aspects of the energy security system. Agusdinata and DeLaurentis describe a system-of-systems approach to the highly complex energy sector. We build upon their description and approach the definition of energy security from the perspective of a “wicked problem” that supports the idea of developing resiliency in energy systems.

The term “wicked problem” was first used by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber (Rittel, H.W.J. and M.M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 [1973]: 155—169) to address social planning problems that were open-ended, contradictory, and had ever-changing requirements that were often difficult to recognize.

The global energy security system involves myriad stakeholders and countless interdependencies among nations and regions. That no single entity is responsible for the entire system is not surprising, given the vast reach of the system. Ultimately, every nation addresses energy security in its own way. Within some nations, the government owns many components of the energy system and has a dominant role in energy-related decision making. In others, energy supply and distribution infrastructure are privately held, and authority is distributed. For instance, in the United States, more than 80 percent of the energy infrastructure is owned by the private sector. The need for the overall system to be resilient is essential.

In the United States, the responsibility for the nation’s energy security system spans many federal, state, and local governments, as well as private industry and consumers. At the national level, the administration developed a Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future in 2011 and has emphasized innovation for clean energy, the development of domestic sources, and demand reduction through energy efficiency. One year later, a progress report was submitted to the President by Secretaries from the following departments: Energy, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, in addition to the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. The report highlighted progress in “increasing American energy independence; expanding domestic oil and gas production; setting historic new fuel economy standards; improving energy efficiency in one million homes; doubling renewable energy generation; developing advanced, alternative fuels; and supporting cutting-edge research.” In March 2013, the President called for the creation of an Energy Security Trust to invest in future technologies. Congress influences energy security through how it directs energy-security–related funds to different federal agencies and organizations to perform the research, management tasks, and decision making needed for the operation of the various aspects of the system.

The mission of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also significantly influences energy security, with its mission to lead the national effort to protect critical infrastructure, including energy-related infrastructure, from all hazards by managing risk and enhancing resilience.

The U.S. Department of Defense, with its need to provide reliable energy to its forces, provides leadership (in partnership with DOE) in advancing innovative energy technologies. Regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulate different parts of the system. State and local governments also exert regulatory controls. Internationally, the U.S. Department of State and various national security entities handle responsibilities for assessing international energy issues as well as the impact of those issues on the security of the United States and its allies.

Despite significant efforts by these stakeholders to coordinate and collaborate, several critical factors delay the progress in achieving our energy security goals and render it virtually impossible to design the system to be resilient. These factors include the way agencies are funded, the special interests of various stakeholders, and the overall lack of a national “grand strategy.”

Using Strategic Visioning and Foresight

Although wicked problems are very difficult to define, proposing a definition or vision to start a discussion or dialog on energy security is often necessary. Thus, to apply systems thinking and strategic foresight to the energy security system, we propose the following working definition:

The Energy Security System should be an agile, resilient, global network designed to provide reliable and affordable energy to customers. The system must be able to accomplish a number of objectives: protect citizens, minimize disruptions, develop and implement policies, incentivize conservation, cause no undue environmental impacts, and identify key organizations.

The system is composed of many diverse and interdependent sets of system elements: public policy, domestic and international politics, economics, science and technology, climate change and other environmental issues, physical infrastructure vulnerability, cyber issues, competing demands, and social/cultural/human behaviors and values.


David Dodge, Green Energy Futures
The strategic envisioning scenario used outlined a future US in which energy sources are diversified, including sources such as biomass, as pictured.

In a workshop conducted as part of the “Energy Security as a Grand Strategy Conference” held at the National Defense University (NDU) in May 2012, participants were introduced to strategic visioning and foresight as well as the application of these concepts in the energy security system. Workshop participants included experts from a diverse set of disciplines and a wide variety of government agencies, industry, academia, and international organizations.

Working in small groups, the workshop participants were led through an exercise to synthesize information, apply strategic foresight and visioning methodologies to a scenario, and develop recommendations for a grand energy strategy. The scenario for the conference was based on the visioning process developed by one of the authors of this paper (Ronis).

Within our context, a vision is defined as a description of a future state and the role one will play in that future. For the 2040 scenario used at the 2012 conference, the scenario author defined the system (i.e., energy security) to address and then identified the following five sets of questions about the United States energy system to explore in the situation:

  • Sustainability
  • Improved Efficiency
  • Environmental Considerations
  • Distributed Networks
  • Reduced Risks

The conference exercise tested assumptions and/or questions by requiring participants to develop plausible scenarios that explore each one. Lacking the time at the conference to fully develop a comprehensive vision of the future, the participants were guided in using a shortcut to establish the critical elements for a better energy future and define steps the nation could take to realize the energy security vision. This kind of tool is an example of what could be used to develop grand strategies such as “energy system security and resilience.”

A Grand Strategy for Energy Security: 2040 Scenario

What follows are major elements of the scenario used at the workshop: a serious, wicked problem.

The year is 2040. The United States has made tremendous progress in moving toward energy independence and reducing its use of fossil fuels. Global environmental problems, both disruptive weather patterns and rising sea levels, are not yet under control, but as India and China have adopted new environmental standards, the ozone hole is no longer getting larger, and global warming is beginning to abate. Nevertheless, many countries around the world are struggling to prevent their low-lying regions from being swallowed by the sea, including much of the east coast of the United States, particularly Washington, D.C. The strategy laid out in 2014 is finally beginning to show signs of working more than 25 years later…

In 2040, the energy policies of the United States include every conceivable energy source that can increase efficiency, effectiveness, or sustainability and help improve our nation’s prospects of achieving an independent energy capability. All sectors of society are included: residential, commercial, industrial, governmental, and transportation elements are actively participating in using alternative sources of energy and reducing traditional fossil fuel usage.

Most communities now control the power sources that provide electricity. The distribution of energy down to individual facilities is the norm; most facilities now provide 100% of the energy they use. Although many facilities still work off the original energy grid, they typically augment grid-supplied power with their own self-generated power; many residences and commercial facilities generate more energy than they use and then sell it back to the utility. Utilities have become major partners in this process. Life-cycle analyses are also currently used to understand true costs, thus changing all the equations.

Everything changed as a result of a crisis in 2014. All national assets were mobilized to determine solutions quickly, and it worked. Today, in 2040, energy is diversified and includes sources such as biomass, nuclear power, natural gas, solar energy, wind energy, water flow technologies, coal, and geothermal generation. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle technologies are commonly used.

Improved efficiency is sought everywhere. After the 2014 crisis, land developers began to design completely sustainable communities, and inner-city revitalization projects resulted in retrofitting of buildings and homes with energy-efficient solutions. Intelligent, automated building technologies began to enable more efficient building operations. Most homes, offices, commercial buildings, factories, schools, and hospitals use high-efficiency insulation to insulate roofs as well as seal off window and door frames. Stationary fuel cells are widely used in construction.

Energy use and economic prosperity are positively correlated. A positive correlation is likewise indicated between the growth of the population of the planet and the carbon dioxide (CO2) content of the environment. Changing attitudes regarding energy awareness were essential to realizing the improvements made over the 25 years since the crisis.

What, you might ask, could have possibly happened in 2014 that led to the world we have just described in 2040? As it turns out, a significant shock to the “system”—particularly the energy distribution and security system—occurred!

In 2014, several crises occurred simultaneously. The first occurred when Israel, feeling an immediate threat, bombed several Iranian facilities, leading to increased instability all over the Middle East, with ripple effects experienced globally. The price of gasoline in the United States exceeded $7 a gallon, prompting Americans to panic as they tried to keep their vehicles fueled. At the same time, the instability in the Middle East affected Japan’s ability to import oil from that region, causing economic problems. Making matters worse, Chinese Navy captains, upset with decisions being made in Beijing, decided to “redirect” the few remaining shipments of oil bound for Japan to China because China’s oil imports were being disrupted as well.

Japan faced a major energy crisis because soon only a few shipments of oil were coming into the country. This situation was made more difficult when China publicly denied that the Navy captains were Chinese; most within the Chinese government were willing to do anything to keep their engine of growth fueled. Complicating matters further, China was pressuring Canada privately to ship most of the oil supplies bound for the United States to China. In response, Canada told China publicly that it would not redirect energy shipments bound for the United States.

Within a few weeks, gasoline prices soared to more than $10 a gallon in the United States, crippling the US economy and sending the western world into a deep recession. Canada, Japan, and the United States officially claimed that China had perpetrated “acts of war” on them, precipitating major diplomatic initiatives aimed at resolving the conflicts and avoiding war with China. Both Canada and Japan asked the United States for protection in accordance with their respective agreements. To comply with the various treaties, the United States began to develop a new grand strategy related to energy security.

Unfortunately, there was no way to prevent the war. Two of the United States’ closest allies had declared war, and the United States itself had been similarly attacked. Having Chinese officials respond by stonewalling was not helpful.

The cyber attacks then began, aimed at the critical infrastructure of the United States, Canada, and Japan. Clear evidence showed that the attacks were coming from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in China. Once again, Chinese officials denied any knowledge and announced that the West was seriously jeopardizing its relationships with China based on its “unfounded accusations.”


Ian Muttoo / CC BY-SA 2.0
Continuous envisioning of potential scenarios and threats is integral in developing a comprehensive grand strategy for energy security.

Energy grids in the United States, Canada, and Japan and global positioning satellites (GPSs) were hit and taken down. Although China had not fired a shot, without the energy grids or GPS, neither the military nor civil society could function on any level in the three countries.

China “asked” the three countries to “share” their energy supplies to reduce the risks of an unstable China emerging. Chinese officials fully expected the three countries to comply; however, they had miscalculated the resolve of their adversaries. Communities in all three countries pulled together to rebuild their energy infrastructure, first by building distributed and networked energy grids and micro-grids and then by taking control of local electricity generation. The transition took place very quickly considering the catastrophic loss of the grid. As communities recovered, they were determined to control their own power sources in the future.

Chinese leaders were frustrated and angry. They had hoped to unite their people against a common foe to stave off a revolution that was fomenting as expectations of numerous Chinese citizens were not being met. The efforts of their Navy and the PLA backfired as the world turned against China—resulting in boycotts of Chinese products worldwide. This unanticipated response further destabilized the country, driving capital investment from China, blunting the nation’s growth curve, and defeating its original aim.

Knowing that a destabilized China would be highly dangerous, countries in the West ensured that China did not fail; however, the crisis in the United States, Japan, and Canada would change everything because it led to the development of a grand strategy to address energy security.

Workshop Results

Given the preceding “wicked” scenario, workshop participants formed eight cross-disciplinary groups to discuss the strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and threats associated with the scenario. They provided a vision for a better U.S. energy system in 2024 and shared the assumptions they made to get to that system. System stakeholders, characteristics and attributes were identified, both inside and outside the system boundaries. Participants then identified system strengths and weaknesses, as well as variables across the entire “STEEP” spectrum—social, technological, economic, environmental, and political. Finally, they developed implementation steps that would be taken over the next three years to achieve the group’s vision for the 2024 energy system.

Although the scenario represented a situation in 2040, the groups were asked to think strategically about goals, recommendations, and requirements for the energy system in time increments leading up to 2040. For purposes of reporting to the larger group, the workshop focused on what the energy system would require by 2024. A number of ideas emerged, and the authors developed the following key conclusions.

  1. Realize the urgency. Recent natural disasters have only magnified the critical need for affordable, reliable, sufficient, and sustainable energy sources. New challenges and threats cannot be met with 20th -century infrastructure and without a comprehensive energy policy. With such need for energy sources being one of the most challenging and pressing issues of our time, a national energy security strategy must be developed immediately.
  2. Ask difficult questions. Energy security involves complex interdependencies that are difficult to identify and characterize using traditional research methods. We must ask questions that, for example, acknowledge the geopolitical and social factors associated with understanding energy from a global perspective.
  3. Underpin energy security policy decision making with analysis and information.As emphasized by many participants and speakers, we lack a substantive national energy policy. Natural, and potentially manmade, incidents are likely to create increased pressure to respond to energy security situations and make preventative decisions.
  4. Move toward a systems approach. Reconciling the global context as well as the technological challenges and policy considerations previously outlined will require an interdisciplinary approach with a foundation in systems science. Given the difficulty of even defining and describing “energy security,” a systems approach will be needed to grasp the complexities, competing priorities, and challenges we must address to achieve national security and resilience.


Our national security and economic prosperity depend increasingly on our ability to develop a grand strategy for energy security. The grand strategy we develop must be aimed at creating an agile, resilient, and global network designed to provide reliable and affordable energy to customers. The workshop conclusions demonstrate how effective and thought-provoking decision support tools such as foresight and strategic visioning can be used to navigate a wicked problem and ultimately develop a grand strategy (Ronis, S.R., Timelines into the Future: Strategic Visioning Methods for Government, Business, and Other Organizations, Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Press, 2007). Visioning and foresight processes are excellent tools that can be used by policy makers to learn more about the complex energy security systems they are trying to manage and to understand more clearly the concepts that underlie the system. Every government should be engaged in this kind of thinking when making energy plans and policies. The crucial part of visioning is the process of opening the eyes and minds of decision makers to potential events that are ordinarily never considered; literally, to “think the unthinkable.”

Developing a comprehensive grand strategy for energy security would ideally involve the creation of dozens of scenarios over a broad range of issues. The process would be driven by a team to stress-test assumptions under the various scenarios to see how changes in policy might affect outcomes. Our conference used only one scenario and a short-cut process, but we found the process extremely useful. We believe that the process produced a deep, richer understanding of energy security as a system.

On the basis of the initial findings generated from the conference exercise, together with recommendations outlined in the workshop report, we highly encourage the use of strategic foresight as a robust approach to helping address the wicked problem that is energy security.

Above all, strategic foresight for the creation of an energy security grand strategy needs to be a continuous endeavor that creates an adaptive learning environment in which critical thinking and creativity thrive; conventional wisdom is always questioned; and systems thinking, “visioning,” as well as incorporation of new information and structures are staples of the ongoing process to ensure resilience.


Pamela Sydelko

Pamela Sydelko is the Director of the Systems Science Center, part of the Global Security Sciences Division at Argonne National Laboratory. She has 28 years of experience in systems science and analysis...

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