Opinion: New energy sources for AI, data centers are vital to U.S. national security

This article originally appeared in MarketWatch.

Government must revamp energy policies to keep the nation’s power grid running

By: General Duncan McNabb (Ret.)

Seemingly overnight, artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a transformational technology that will reshape our society and economy for the foreseeable future. We are only beginning to understand its implications, and the public debate has touched on topics ranging from political misinformation to the future of the workforce.

Missing from the current conversation are the risks to our national security if we fail to make the energy policy changes necessary to power these systems. Data centers and their rapacious thirst for energy has left some environmental advocates arguing to slow AI, or for taking a highly cautious approach.

Maintaining appropriate guardrails around AI is an essential conversation to have, but this dialogue must focus on “how” not “if” we find the energy for this technology and other critical national needs.

Even without AI, American energy demand is surging for positive reasons: Reindustrialization through an advanced manufacturing renaissance, vehicle electrification, and robust economic growth mean we need more power, and we need it now. After remaining flat for 30 years, national electricity demand is growing at double the forecasted rate, reaching 6% in certain areas of accelerated economic growth, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) anticipates 4.7% growth over the next five years.

After decades of offshoring manufacturing and allowing our competitors to undermine our industry through a race to the bottom, this reversal is worth celebrating—although we may be at just the beginning. AES, a Virginia-based utility, estimates that data centers could comprise up to 7.5% of total U.S. electricity consumption by 2030, roughly equivalent to 40 million households.

We need a national strategy: Our grid system is buckling under the stress of recent demand increases, and challenges will increase as growth surges.

If we are not clear-eyed in our approach, the dynamics that undermined our industrial capacity could foreshadow our future with AI. Our geopolitical adversaries, especially Russia and China, have overwhelming market share in production of critical minerals, strategic industrial metals, and other manufacturing sectors—and they are accelerating technology development. China has been unambiguous on current and planned efforts to employ AI and machine learning to augment the capabilities of its weapons of war.

As a nation we must set the standard for responsible development of AI systems, but we cannot fall behind and risk bringing traditional munitions to an AI-weaponry fight. The Pentagon, in its 2023 Data, Analytics and Artificial Intelligence Adoption Strategy, argues that AI is a huge potential competitive advantage. We can revolutionize our defense strategy by providing faster, more accurate analyses, improving decision-making, and enhancing overall operational effectiveness—while putting fewer of our servicemen and women in harm’s way.

But only if we have the power to actualize it. The Department of Defense (DoD) is already the single largest user of electricity in the United States—and accounts for 76 percent of the federal government’s energy consumption. Defense and energy security have always been linked, and AI is another point of intersection where we must keep our national security interests as our North Star.

We have a menu of solutions—and we will have to take an all-of-the-above approach to tackle a challenge of this magnitude.

  1. We must increase our capacity to generate more power while also building out and updating the transmission infrastructure—much of it aging and outdated—that brings energy to our communities. Wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources
    must be complemented with traditional generation.
  2. After decades of stagnation, the conversation on nuclear power and small modular nuclear reactors is shifting: Congress recently voted 365-to-36 in favor of the Atomic Energy Advancement Act. Nuclear must be part of the conversation on solutions.
  3. FERC will consider a new rule in May that, if approved, would be a meaningful first step in removing obstacles against much-needed new transmission capacity. As of 2023, there was a backlog of nearly 12,000 power generators waiting to be hooked
    up to the grid, in part due to permitting issues and lack of interregional cooperation.
  4. Finally, we must continue the important work of decoupling our energy system supply chain from adversaries by onshoring and friend-shoring the essential components for our energy transition—and bolstering the security of our grid infrastructure at the state and federal level.

A reliable and secure power grid is the lifeblood of the American economy and vital to the defense of this country. We must treat the challenges facing this essential piece of infrastructure with the urgency they deserve. Our position as a force for democratic values in the world depends on it.

Gen. (Ret.) Duncan McNabb, Former Commander of U.S. Transportation Command, is a member of SAFE’s Energy Security Leadership Council.