The geopolitics of renewable energy


Walt Patterson, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, founder-member of the International Energy Advisory Council and critically-acclaimed author of Electricity vs. Fire: The Fight for the Future discusses the seismic change in geopolitics as renewable energy gains more influence.

“Simply put, geopolitics is the interaction between geography and politics. Geography offers resources, and politics determines who benefits from those resources,” explains Patterson. “What entails a recognition of resources, and how to use them, including their value and commercial status,” he continues, emphasising that materials that were once seen as resources may, in the present day, not be. “For example, 60 years ago, asbestos was a resource. Its hazards far outweigh its usefulness. Many people now see coal in the same way. And as evidence of climate change emerges, oil and natural gas may well be next.”

Indeed, it is true that established energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas face challenges in the modern era of scientific discovery and environmental awareness. According to Patterson, however, environmental enlightenment is encouraging the rapid emergence of alternative, innovative resource options. “The implications for the world economy and geopolitics, even here in Ireland, are profound and far-reaching. A key use of resources is to generate electricity. Traditional resources including petroleum, coal, gas and uranium are competing with these other resources that can’t be created internationally, notably wind and sunlight,” says Patterson. “Both, of course, are specific to given locations. Unlike commodity fuels and metals which can be extracted and imported, solar and wind energy must be used where they are. They are, nonetheless, becoming more and more significant in generating electricity around the world.”

Challenging established energy sources

There are both local and global problems associated with the burning of fossil fuels, according to the climate expert. “Urban air you can’t breathe, and the atmospheric overheating of the entire planet is ultimately caused by our use of fire, and particularly what it releases into the world’s atmosphere,” he explains. Patterson draws attention to wind and solar energy sources as resources which don’t require the use of fire, in what he terms as “fire-free energy”. Such resources reduce a reliance on fuel, thereby undermining the political and economic significance of state and corporate fuel providers, termed by Patterson as “fire-feeders”.

Patterson’s claims about the decreasing influence of the fossil fuel industry can be supported by observing recent trends in the global energy market. Indeed, wind and solar power are already undercutting coal in some of its major markets in the USA and Australia. “Car manufacturers are developing electric cars, threatening the global demand for petroleum. Natural gas, touted as the cleanest fossil fuel, is nonetheless a fire feeder,” says Patterson. “Improving housing by introducing fire-free fuel methods could dramatically reduce the market for natural gas,” he continues. According to Patterson, all of these developments bring with them significant geopolitical consequences. “Fire-free electricity redistributes political and economic power. It offers opportunities for participation, investment and control, both to centralised giants like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, and to smaller, more decentralised powers like local microgrids”

Renewables and geopolitical challenges

Patterson highlights the fact that as in the case of material resources, immaterial resources such as wind and sunlight raise several questions around ownership and permission to use. “No one owns the wind or sunlight – but someone often owns the place where the wind blows strongest or the sun shines the brightest,” he explains. “Lately, however, contracts for wind and solar have involved several international transactions, meaning that we have a new, multi-layered and complex approach to resource trading.”

The construction of wind and solar energy resources should be thought of as investments in essential infrastructure, according to Patterson. “They both require a substantial input of materials and investment, after which the resulting physical infrastructure produces electricity for decades, with minimal further cost. Relying on wind and sunlight, therefore, suggests a degree of energy independence,” he explains. However, renewable sources don’t come without their geopolitical challenges, notes Patterson. “The creation of such infrastructure requires materials which necessitate international trade for copper, cobalt and other materials. All mining production and processing takes place in China. Some commentators therefore claim that China will therefore hold a dominant position in the supply chain for fire-free electricity.”

According to Patterson, countries across the world are already geopolitically placing themselves to protect their energy security. Indeed, energy sources such as wind and sunlight are location specific and therefore count as domestic resources within a national border. “Increasing reliance on them reduces exposure to international fuel prices, enhancing energy security.”

Decentralisation is the key

Throughout Patterson’s analysis, the climate expert consistently draws reference to decentralised and more localised energy systems. “If you generate your own electricity, you are far less likely to waste it. Indeed, energy decentralisation is taking place in some locations around the world. This will have a significant impact on geopolitical relations – it will raise some tensions, as previously powerful players – the ‘fire feeders’ – find their markets shrinking and influences dwindling, a trend that they are already bitterly opposing”. This effect does, however, cut in both directions, explains Patterson. “It can reduce tensions in how some players reduce their vulnerability and enhance their security. This will redraw the map of geopolitical power.

“In rural areas, decentralised local generation, especially solar, may be the most practical and feasible action to ensure that our fellow human beings receive access to energy,” suggests Patterson. “Construction of solar resources in the likes of sub-Saharan Africa would undoubtedly require international participation. It could, however, be a major contributor towards raising the living standard in these countries.”

The fight for the future

Patterson also suggests the pursuit of renewable energy as a potential cure to the “resource curse” that has long afflicted countries with significant fossil fuel resources, with their economies becoming almost entirely dependent on the likes of oil and natural gas. “The country afflicted with the ‘resource curse’ may plunge into domestic and international violence. Will a similar curse afflict those countries with wind and solar power? That seems unlikely.”

The transition away from fire fuels, according to Patterson, may help to mitigate the worst ravages of climate change – if it happens fast enough. “Whilst tackling international conflict and instability, a shortage of food and water and the migration of climate refugees, local decentralised energy can loosen the hold of the often-corrupt energy corporate bureaucracies,” he concludes. “The fight for the future may be disguised as economics, but it is fundamentally political. The speed of the transition will then depend on the political infight now raging between the traditionalists and the innovators – the fire-feeders and the fire fighters.”

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