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Geopolitical hotspot: the race to dominate renewables

Upington solar station in South Africa feeds power into the national grid Upington solar station in South Africa feeds power into the national grid
16 Oct
The switch to renewables is likely to be as geopolitically transformative as the switch from coal to oil and gas. Tim Marshall lays out the plausible geopolitical scenarios as countries rally for renewable dominance

Maps have always helped us know where we are; some tell us where we are going. Among new ones being drawn are those that project our future. They include maps of the world’s potential solar, wind and water energy supplies.

This century will see a dramatic increase in renewable energy as demand rises and costs drop. It will take decades, but is likely to be as transformative as was the switch from coal to oil and gas. An optimist might forecast that this will include a reduction in conflict, a realist might agree, but new conflicts can arise.

A map of major coal deposits from the 19th century is partially a map of the industrialising powers. Britain, France, the USA and others dug out their reserves as they powered their way around the world. What they rarely did, however (with exceptions), was go to war, or base foreign policy around where the coal was. 

A map from the 20th century showing oil and gas reserves is partially a map of where wars and colonisations took place. Shade such a map with increasingly dark colours, based around the biggest reserves, and apart from Canada, one area stands out – the Middle East. Its natural resources were a blessing and a curse. From the Red Sea, across to the Strait of Hormuz, and up to the Caspian Sea, the map is black. The region’s black gold and the routes to deliver it to markets determined many countries’ foreign policy. 

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The difference between the previous two maps and the 21st-century maps of renewable energy sources is that the former concentrate on narrowly defined regions while the latter shows the world. Sun, wind and water are found in different quantities, but are global, and power garnered from them won’t need to be shifted around the globe in huge tankers. 

Some countries are better placed than others. The UK, notably Scotland, is well positioned to take advantage of wind power, but might be ‘solar challenged’. The USA has abundant sun, wind and water, and gas reserves aplenty, as it makes the slow shift . Saudi Arabia has already read the future and embarked on its Saudi 2030 project to wean the economy off fossil fuels and towards solar power. Germany has had the economic clout, and foresight, to become a world leader in the manufacturing technology required to harness natural energy sources. China is dominant in making solar cells and batteries, and is trying to corner the market in the materials required for their manufacture. It’s also home to huge reserves of neodymium, which is used to make the generators for wind turbines. Chile is well placed: it’s the world’s largest source of lithium. 

This leads us on to some of the losers. Creating and storing energy from renewable sources requires a range of rare earth materials and other commodities. For example, cobalt and lithium are vital for making rechargeable batteries. Most of the known quantities of cobalt are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and while this might seem a positive for the DRC, the likelihood is that both outside and internal powers will continue to fight over its resources even as scientists race to invent cobalt-free batteries. 

The nature of war will be affected. Cyber warfare and terrorism could be directed at what are likely to be vast electricity grids that will cross borders. However, potential conflicts are likely to involve much smaller areas than in the age of oil. Some of the Gulf States, Venezuela, Canada, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and, to a lesser extent Russia, will see a gradual reduction in fossil-fuel revenue. Russia’s decline is expected to be softened by its gas reserves as gas is likely to be phased out more slowly. 

This will play out across the century. Some shifts in the balance of power can’t be predicted, but we can say with confidence that they will happen. Bloomberg’s annual New Energy Finance report projects that by 2050, the world will get half of its power from wind and solar. The change is under way. 

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