Time for an energy independence moonshot

April 14, 2022 - Dr. Tom Dietz

University Distinguished Professor of Sociology Tom Dietz writes that it is "time for an energy independence moonshot" in this op-ed article in The Hill, emphasizing that the best way to halt Russian energy dominance and their overall power is to make major near-term reductions in demand for Russian energy and create a foundation for larger long-term reductions.


Millions of people are asking how they can help the Ukrainians. Humanitarian aid matters, but it won’t put pressure on Russia or reduce the burden of rising energy prices. Reducing demand for Russian energy will. Every tank of gas or hour of electricity not used reduces Russia’s ability to buy weapons and exert energy leverage over other countries.

In 2008 Juneau, Alaska, reduced its electricity demand by 40 percent in response to a crisis, providing a roadmap for quickly reducing demand for Russian energy. A landslide cut the transmission line that supplied 85 percent of the city’s electricity. But people are willing to act when faced with an urgent, common threat, and Juneau government officials worked with energy experts and community leaders to reduce demand quickly and radically.

Other examples of community mobilization in response to crises include scrap drives during World War II, which mobilized the public at a national scale. In 2010, New Zealand mobilized citizens to respond to a drought with a “10 for 10” plan, which reduced energy demand by 10 percent for 10 weeks. Social scientists have identified many examples of the “Good Samaritan Effect,” showing how people and organizations step up during a crisis.

We can deploy the Juneau example nationally if government and private sector leaders seize the opportunity. Efforts are already underway in Europe. In the United States, the public and private sectors can ramp up the most successful, cost-effective programs to reduce household and business energy use by more than 20 percent in the near term.

A project like the moonshot of the 1960s space race can produce major near-term reductions in demand for Russian energy and create a foundation for larger long-term reductions. The short-term matters because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The long-term matters because reducing reliance on energy that funds autocratic governments will be a foreign policy imperative long after the Ukraine crisis ends.

Why are we so confident that a moonshot can work? Three reasons emerge from decades of research.

First, as the Juneau example demonstrates, people often respond dramatically to a crisis.

Second, recent history demonstrates that major and lasting reductions are feasible. For instance, the uptake of LED and other efficient lightbulbs has contributed to the first decline in household per capita electricity use since World War II. Any one bulb is trivial, but government efficiency requirements, marketing by retailers like Walmart and non-profit efficiency programs have achieved unprecedented reductions. These programs also have cut annual carbon emissions by 126 million tons, an amount larger than most industrial sectors.

The LED example is just one of many. The moonshot would need to include initiatives that can yield quick and durable reductions in demand for Russian energy. Expanding production of efficient heat pumps and providing them to the European countries most reliant on Russian energy is one promising step, but there are many others.

Different steps will be needed in different places, but we know how to design large-scale, effective programs. Near-term efforts will combine media campaigns explaining the benefits of reducing energy use with providing real-time energy feedback, increasing the uptake of electric vehicles and other efficient technologies, and identifying simple steps including replacing light bulbs, turning down thermostats, unplugging unused appliances and reducing water use. In many places, consumers can opt for electricity from renewable sources.

Third, the moonshot can bypass the polarization that is causing government gridlock. Pushing increased production as the only answer divides the public, and dividing Americans is exactly what the Russians have been trying to achieve for the last decade. But a mobilized, bipartisan campaign to escape reliance on Russian energy can focus on global responsibilities and national patriotism, not on any polarized issue. 

Government, business and civic leaders can get behind a new moonshot to reduce Russia’s energy leverage. Will they do so? Or will we look back five years from now with a devastated Ukraine and a world that is more dependent than ever on Russian oil and gas?

Michael P. Vandenbergh is the David Daniels Allen distinguished chair in law at Vanderbilt University Law School, director of the Climate Change Research Network and co-director of the Energy, Environment and Land Use Program.

Thomas Dietz is university distinguished professor at Michigan State University and a fellow of the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont.

Paul Stern is president of the Social and Environmental Research Institute. He served as a principal staff officer at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, where he was staff director for the Board on Environmental Change and Society from 1989 to 2016.