Renewables and geopolitics: The United States

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The United States has a unique geopolitical position and a global energy system based on an accelerated transition to renewables could either compromise or strengthen the nation, depending on its choices.

In another installment in our series of renewable energy and geopolitics interviews, Indra Overland – head of the Center for Energy Research at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs – explained, as other countries become energy more self-sufficient or rely on imports from near neighbors, they will have less dependence on international oil and gas trade security guarantees provided by the U.S.

If the States jettisons fossil fuels, said Overland, it will lose a major geopolitical advantage. “People tend to forget that the United States is a very major fossil fuels producer in its own right,” said the analyst. “The main chance for the United States to retain its global dominance in the energy sector would be through maintaining its lead on innovation and intellectual property related to clean energy technologies.”

Overland believes the U.S. is not maximizing its advantage in that area despite the strength of American universities, innovation and venture capital.

The turn away from clean energy

The Trump administration has reduced support for renewables for various reasons, according to Overland. “The oil lobby at the business level has deep historical roots and is immensely strong in the United States,” he said. “In addition, regions with oil, gas or coal extraction have large groups of working class people who feel threatened by [the] energy transition.”

The nation also has a unique dependence on the car, Overland pointed out, however there are strong arguments in favor of clean energy in the United States.

The American political system hands outright power to one side or the other and Trump and the Republican Party have their hands on the wheel at present, despite receiving less than half the votes cast in the 2016 election. “That may change in the future and there may also be change internally among the Republicans, many of whose young voters are becoming more preoccupied with climate change,” said Overland.

The professor described Trump’s attitude to renewables as more negative than ambiguous. “But on the other hand I think that attitude is not very deep felt,” he added, explaining the president and his party have to engage with interest groups who may be persuaded to come onside. The academic gave the example of the divisive issue of abortion, claiming many of the most strident anti-abortion voices in the Republican Party may simply be playing politics. “They do this because there are large voter groups – including many Catholic women whom they otherwise would have little chance to attract – whom they hope to win over this way,” he said.

If young voters are concerned about climate change, suggested Overland, Republican Party attitudes could change on the issue.

Dependence on the Middle East

Less dependence on fossil fuels would mean less dependence on oil imports from the Middle East but the region would remain strategically important to the U.S., particularly Egypt and the Suez Canal.

Israel would remain an important ally, said Overland, adding: “Logically, apart from those two points, U.S. interest in the Middle East should decline, as it would have much less interest in propping up Saudi Arabia, influencing Iraq or invading Iran if the oil is no longer needed. However, one’s answer to this question depends on how one interprets the world today. Many people believe that the United States invaded Iraq to get control over oil. However, what in practice ensued was that the invasion of Iraq destabilized the region and removed oil from the world market, sending oil prices sky high.” The academic pointed out the period after the invasion of Iraq saw some of the biggest profits ever banked by companies in history – accrued by American oil companies.

“Did the U.S. really invade Iraq to get hold of oil, or to get rid of it? Is it sanctioning and threatening Iran to protect Israel or to keep Iranian oil off international markets and keep oil prices high? Does the United States really care about democracy and human rights in the Middle East?” Overland asked.

The answers to those questions, Overland said, determine what sort of future relationship to anticipate between the U.S. and the Middle East. “The motivations of states – which consist of millions of citizens and tens of thousands of organizations and interest groups – are hard to parse and the answers to such questions therefore remain elusive,” he said.

Trade wars and solar

Asked whether the tariffs applied to Chinese PV imports to the U.S. have a geopolitical context, Overland said the current American leadership does not understand there is a global race to gain preeminence in clean energy technology. “I think they are not about promoting [the] U.S. PV industry but rather about the general trade war and about hobbling the development of the PV industry globally,” Overland stated. “However, such actions often have unforeseen consequences and while the Chinese have made an incredible contribution to the development of the global PV sector, a slightly more globally balanced sector might be better in the long run.

The professor had previously told pv magazine: “If Trump’s trade war is not successful in either breaking down the Chinese or bringing them to heel, their dominance may be very long lasting. China has an immense discipline and vigor and now that it has rediscovered itself after the Maoist years it may keep going for a long time, also in solar power.”

New international relations

As discussed in previous pv magazine interviews, more renewables may push nations towards energy self-sufficiency or greater integration with the energy markets of other countries. Overland believes the former more likely for the United States. “In the case of Canada, Mexico and the U.S., I don’t think transition to renewable energy and electrification necessarily will lead to more integrated transboundary electricity grids,” Overland said. While the small nations of Europe will have to cooperate to decarbonize, the U.S. could go it alone.

One thing is certain, Overland said, more renewables and a reduced need for oil and gas could be used as leverage against Russia and other petrostates. The rise of renewables will clearly weaken states such as Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. On the other hand, the U.S. is also a major fossil fuel power, so it may lose some of its clout.

“The U.S. may still have supremacy but it would not be quite as important as today – though it would still be important for other reasons,” he concluded.

In previous interviews in this series, Indra Overland has discussed geopolitical issues related to the myths surrounding the geopolitics of renewable energy; the combination of solar and hydropower; China; Russia; Saudi Arabia; storage; super-grids; and the energy transition.