The geopolitics of renewable energy: different or similar to conventional energy?

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Article by: David Criekemans (April 2011) Tags: Geopolitics Renewable Energy Technology Desertec North Seas Countries Offshore Grid Initiative CO2 Emissions Investments Germany

David Criekemans

David Criekemans

Dr. David Criekemans is Research-co-ordinator and Senior Researcher ‘European and Global Relations’, Flemish Centre for International Policy (FCIP), Antwerp (Belgium). Moreover, he is Assistant Professor in ‘Belgian and Comparative Foreign Policy’ at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. Finally, Dr Criekemans is Lecturer in ‘Geopolitics’ at the International Centre for Geopolitical Studies (ICGS), Geneva (Switzerland).

The whole paper is available for download:

“The geopolitics of renewable energy”

Geopolitics is the scientific field of study belonging to both Political Geography and International Relations, which investigates the interaction between politically acting (wo)men and their surrounding territoriality (in its three dimensions; physicalgeographical, human-geographical and spatial) (Criekemans, 2007; Criekemans 2009).

The field of Geopolitics has always been very interested in energy questions since conventional energy sources such as oil, natural gas and coal constitute physicalgeographical variables of strategic importance. Within Geopolitics, it is recognized that the energy regime of the global system and the energy relations between producer countries, transit countries and consumer countries are important variables which can influence international relations. The factor ‘location’ –where the energy resources are, and via which routes can they be brought to (potentially rival) consumer countries– constitutes an important area of study within the field of Geopolitics.

The ‘Geopolitics of (Conventional) Energy’ entails a whole literature in itself. Exploring and developing conventional energy (oil, natural gas, coal) demands for huge capital investments and a military machine to control. Today, in an age of increasing scarcity, producer, transit and consumer countries are positioning themselves geopolitically so as to safeguard their energy security. Of course, energy and location in themselves do not explain everything in international relations, otherwise one would lapse into geographic or energetic determinism. But the way in which societies shape their energy mix, is central to both their chances for development and survival. Countries and areas which have energy (technology) at their disposal potentially have better cards compared to other countries.

Nevertheless all countries, regions and areas are interconnected when it comes to the complexity of energetic relations, which in itself is translated into international-political relations and power dynamics. We know what the Geopolitics of Conventional Energy entails, and how it becomes more prominent in times of resource scarcity. But as countries in the world will in the coming decades move towards more renewable energy in their respective energy mixes, how will this affect geopolitical relations? What trends and developments can we see today? To what extend is the Geopolitics of Renewable Energy different or similar compared to the Geopolitics of Conventional Energy? Remarkably enough the current literature in Geopolitics and international relations has only barely scratched the surface with regard to exploring the potential geopolitical effects of the transition towards more renewable energy sources. This paper can be seen as a first initial effort to bring some thoughts on this matter together.

Renewable energy has come into the picture in the past years as a result of a number of combing factors and trends. First, the last decades have clearly shown that the burning of non-renewable, fossil fuels leads to CO2-emissions, the exhausting of resources, local environmental degradation and climate change. Second, the entering into the world economic scene of a couple of billion people in especially Asia structurally impacts the demand for energy, as a result of which (conventional) energy scarcity could become a real possibility in the coming decades.

All these elements push decision makers to make new choices in the direction of more renewable forms of energy. Also the markets influence this process, although this evolved jerkily in the past couple of years. When the stock markets think a situation of scarcity might develop, like was the case in the summer of 2008 (when a barrel of oil reached the staggering record price of 147$), then the prices of fossil energy can multiply in a short time frame and create volatility in the market. As a result of this, renewable energy becomes more interesting and economic in comparison to traditional forms of energy.

When a few months later in 2008 the energy prices collapsed as a result of the economic crisis, a reverse process seemed to develop in the market – resulting finally in decreasing investments in renewable energy. Such dynamics make the study of renewable energy within a broader geo-economical and geopolitical context not very easy. Many variables are at play. Nevertheless, humanity will have to make the transition towards more renewable energy if she is to survive the century. The stakes could never have been higher. Who will be the winners, who will be the losers? And how will renewable energy reshape the global and macro-regional geopolitical landscape?

The insights which we developed in this paper are based upon a recent study ‘Geopolitics of Renewable Energy: chances and opportunities for Flanders’ which was conducted at the Flemish Centre for International Policy. It is based upon some 30 interviews with key people in the sector of renewable energy working in Flanders and Brussels (with the EU), and also on the current available secondary and primary literature on renewable energy.

The paper tries to bring together some ideas on the specificity of the geopolitics of renewable energy. It is structured as follows:

  • We try to define ‘renewable energy’ and illustrate the difference between ‘renewable’ and ‘sustainable’;
  • We will lay out some internal and external geopolitical consequences of the energy transition;
  • We explain that the transition towards renewable energy in fact entails an “energy technology-revolution” or ET-revolution;
  • We provide a global overview of the latest developments in renewable energy;
  • We will study the geopolitics of renewable energy in more detail – we will look at the global control over patents and knowledge and we will investigate the potential of renewable energy sources and their geopolitical consequences;
  • We will analyse some current “mega-dossiers” in renewable energy in Europe – Desertec and the North Seas Countries Offshore Grid Initiative;
  • Last but not least, we will try to formulate some conclusions on the specificity of the geopolitics of renewable energy.

Conclusion

This paper studied the geopolitics of renewable energy. The question was asked whether it was different or similar compared to the geopolitics of conventional energy. The answer to this question seems to be a mixed one.

On the one hand, the answer could be that it is potentially different. Renewable energy is more decentralised in nature compared to conventional energy. An interwoven net of renewables combined with smart grids could potentially be more reliant and entails the potential for societal rejuvenation in the sense that it could empower people and regional authorities vis-à-vis central governments and interests.

Moreover, those countries who invest in renewable energy may well become central players in the future. The US and China, but also some individual EU-countries such as Germany, are actors that invest a lot in renewable energy technology. As renewable energy will grow and gains a higher percentage of the energy mixes in countries, it will also alter their geopolitical positions.

Countries which geopolitically enjoy pivotal positions in the conventional energy world, will not necessary enjoy the same position in a world in which renewables grow in importance (e.g. Saudi Arabia). Eventually, geopolitical relations across the globe could be affected.

On the other hand, the answer could be that it is similar. The bigger projects in renewable energy suffer from very similar security issues as compared to traditional energy projects. The question for instance lies with where certain pivotal power lines will run, and who will control them. What about the physical security of these power lines?

In addition, the Geopolitics of Renewable Energy also creates geo-technical opportunities and limitations. One of the major problems with which countries will be faced, concerns the issue of the rare earth materials that are needed in the technological advances of renewable energy technology. Rothkopf convincingly wrote that the green geopolitical crises might look similar to those of the conventional energy regime. There might be green protectionism in the western world, but also the condition of oil producing countries might be problematic in a world where renewable energy is growing fast (Rothkopf, 2009).

In all probability, the geopolitics of conventional energy and that of renewable energy will exist next to each other for a period of several decades. Decision makers will have to be creative in trying to cancel out the drawbacks of one source of energy with the advantages of the other. In that sense, the geopolitics of energy will become more complex, and will have to deal with a variety of issues in foreign policy, diplomacy and international security.

Instead of approaching this issue in antithetical terms, one should rather try to pursue more synthetical approaches in the study of geopolitics, power transitions and energy.

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