Geopolitics and Renewable Energy

By Professor Anthony T. Bryan


Renewable energy (RE) is regarded as one of the most important elements in the mitigation of climate change. I have seen projections that renewable energy could account for 64% of electricity generation worldwide by 2050.

Yet it will take decades for the transition to RE to run its course. It may never phase out fossil fuels completely. Natural Gas and LNG will be important transition fuels even in the late 21st century.

This energy transition has set off a global race for the best technologies. As Francis O’Sullivan of MIT Energy Initiative, puts it: “We are moving from a world where the value of the energy is embedded in the resource to where technology is the resource.”

In the context of geopolitics, the world's concentrated deposits of oil, natural gas and coal have helped determine the global balance of power over the past century, giving a small number of energy-rich states, many of them in the Middle East, tremendous influence. However, that is changing. Renewable energy does not produce the same categories of international oligopolies. “Renewable energy sources are practically universal. Globally, the sun shines; the wind blows and rivers flow fully only some of the time, regardless of geography, further evening the geopolitical playing field.”

Renewable energy also has a much greater potential for decentralized distribution. As power generation becomes more dispersed regions may become more self-sufficient in energy, a process labeled “energy democratization.” In Africa and elsewhere, enhanced access to energy, via mini-grids and rooftop solar panels, can reduce energy poverty even as the global population is soaring. The reward of the energy transition will be to give national and regional communities “super powers” over their energy, not turn countries into energy superpowers. The current term is: “The new power superpowers.”

There are other dimensions to the technological transition to RE. There will be winners and losers. Among the winners: China is the world's leader in the manufacture of clean energy products, including solar cells and batteries. It produces more than half of the global supply. It is also the world's major extractor and supplier of rare earth materials, and the biggest provider of renewable

energy capacity. It could emerge as the main provider of energy products, services and technology to the world. Saudi Arabia is shifting from oil and investing resources to become a major solar power producer. The losers: Traditional oil exporters such as Venezuela, the Gulf Cooperation Council states and regional exporters such as Trinidad, and eventually Guyana, could be among the countries hardest hit by the gradual transition away from fossil fuels--unless they embrace the clean energy transition now!

Obviously RE status won't confer the same geopolitical prominence that oil producers enjoyed in the oil-dominated world of the past century. The grab for fossil fuels, particularly oil, has ignited several conflicts, including coups, civil wars and military interventions. Renewable energy widely available from the elements probably won't have the same power to spark large-scale military confrontations. Even so, the low carbon transition from fossil fuels to RE has the potential to cause geopolitical friction and strife. It could disrupt major oil and gas-producing countries with consequences for supply security and living standards. There are more invasive threats as well. As nations’ economies become more electrified and interconnected with super grids to handle the additional power demand from urbanization, electric vehicles and seemingly infinite quantities of data, they will become prime targets for cyber attacks by hostile states or other entities. Threats to cyber security will be constant.

Must the Transition to RE be slow?

Today more than 100 countries have identified RE as one of the prime ways of meeting their commitments under the Paris climate agreement. We tend to think of energy systems as far more static and stable than they are. But many countries have managed to grow without consuming more energy, have reduced their consumption of specific energy resources and changed their energy mix in a decade or two. History does show that when change comes it can be swift and dramatic. Some countries can go rapidly from pre-industrial to a 21st century model of clean energy.

Developing countries (where the needs are greatest) can leapfrog technologies. But there is a requirement for the local private sector and government to proactively get involved in implementing this opportunity for technology advancement.

Finally, the path to the Caribbean’s sustainable energy future (whether production from stranded oil, or manufacturing transition fuels, or implementing RE) requires a holistic vision of regional energy cooperation. It would integrate our regional energy policy with trade, economics, environment, security, foreign relations and geopolitical considerations, while extending the dialogue with producing and consuming countries alike. These should be some components of the roadmap.           

[This is an extract from an article by Professor Anthony T. Bryan on Climate Change and Energy Geopolitics: Game Changers which appeared in the February 2019 edition of the CERM newsletter. The (CERM) Collaboration for Efficiency, Resourcefulness and Maximization Project is a collaboration between academic institutions, The University of the West Indies (UWI), the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) and Government Energy Institutions. Click here to read the full article and newsletter.]

Professor Anthony T. Bryan, Ph.D. is an Honorary Senior Fellow with the Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, and a Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.