The race to dom­i­nate re­new­ables

Geographical - - WORLD­WATCH -

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.

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. Blomberg’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.

Wind power den­sity po­ten­tial

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