VARUN SIVARAM

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OVERVIEW: Geopolitics of Renewables

Clean energy’s explosive growth is good news for the global quest to confront climate change, but its geopolitical effects might not be uniformly beneficial. This should come as no surprise. Fossil fuels have driven not only global economic growth, but also global conflict. For decades, the United States has waged wars and built international institutions to bolster its energy security and advance its economic interests.

As they replace fossil fuels, leading clean energy technologies—wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear energy—as well as emerging ones, such as electric vehicles and batteries, will reorganize power balances between energy producers and consumers and shift U.S. diplomatic interests.

Anticipating these shifts will require farsighted policymaking to safeguard U.S. interests and retain leadership through the transition from old to new energy systems. The Geopolitics of Clean Energy from the US Perspective—a book chapter within The Geopolitics of Renewables (ed. D. Scholten)—imagines a future in which clean energy has substantially displaced fossil fuels by midcentury. Energy experts Varun Sivaram and Sagatom Saha describe five ways that the geopolitical landscape could shift as a result:

 

  • First, the United States may reduce its presence in the Middle East as fossil fuels wane in importance.
     

  • Second, the United States could cede market share in nuclear power to countries like Russia and China that are smarter and more aggressively investing in nuclear innovation, leading to economic opportunity costs and increased threats from nuclear proliferation.
     

  • Third, the United States will likely invest in a smarter and more interconnected power grid to cope with intermittent renewable electricity supply; that could enhance relations with Mexico and Canada but also increase the threat of cyberattacks on the grid.
     

  • Fourth, the rise of clean energy might tempt countries around the world to boost domestic manufacturing, by flouting the norms of the international trade regime that has brought prosperity to the United States.
     

  • And fifth, in the face of the various negative potential implications of a clean energy future, the United States will have an opportunity to advance national and global interests by leading efforts to strengthen international institutions, confront climate change, and invest in clean energy innovation.