The dawn of the age of renewable energy could be even more complicated from a geopolitical perspective than the age of fossil fuels, shifting national and regional power to new players.
A new book put together by the former Chairman of Europe’s largest solar company, Lightsource – which merged with BP last year – throws light on how the world will be permanently transformed by an energy revolution in coming decades.
The study’s key finding is that the widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies could usher in a new electricity paradigm associated with a more advanced clean, industrial economy. The core ingredients for this paradigm will take off rapidly after 2050, it says.
On the other hand, the study warns that renewable energy, if implemented within the same ‘old’ geopolitical paradigm of the fossil fuel era, might not prevent further deterioration of environmental stability and international security.
The new book is edited by Vicente Lopez Ibor Mayor, former Chairman of Lightsource Renewable Energy, which merged with the leading British oil firm, BP, at the end of last year.
BP invested $200m in the merger, equivalent to a 43 percent stake in what is now Lightsource BP. Under the deal, Mayor became Chairman of the Lightsource Foundation, Lightsource BP’s charitable division.
Ibor Mayor’s book, Clean Energy Law and Regulation: Climate Change, Energy Union and International Governance, also published at the end of last year, brings together expert contributions from senior EU officials, energy analysts, diplomats, legal scholars and technology experts. Their contributions scope how energy regulation is rapidly changing to keep up with the emergence of a new electricity and energy paradigm driven by the rise of renewables.
This new renewables-driven paradigm, Mayor concludes, will emerge inevitably in the latter half of the twenty-first century – but its nature, positive or negative, is not set in stone.
In the book’s foreword, Daniel Calleja, Director General for Environment at the European Commission, called for a “transformation in energy law” to accommodate the green energy revolution. He noted that for the European Union to achieve its climate mitigation pledges, there was a need for greater government investment in renewable energy sources and new regulatory frameworks to speed the transition.
He also highlighted the goal of implementing true ‘circular economy’ principles to ensure a regenerative and sustainable approach to the consumption of natural resources through recycling and restoration.
According to Professor Raphael Heffron, Jean Monnet Chair in Energy & Natural Resources Law at Queen Mary University, while renewable energies are likely to disrupt traditional utilities within the next decade or so, the transition may not be fast enough to meet government goals of keeping global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.
As such, the world is heading to “an unknown energy future”.
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To achieve the 2C goal, Professor Heffron said in his contribution, energy laws must be changed to “stimulate investment” to the tune of $208bn annually in low carbon technologies over the next 25 years.
Sounds like a lot? Not really. This is a tiny fraction of what is being spent on fossil fuel subsidies worldwide. That’s why the book argues that by shifting spending from fossil fuels into renewables, governments will free up vast resources for a clean industrial revolution that could boost GDP, lower debt, and boost employment.
Not fast enough
Unfortunately, though, the study warns that we are still not on track to achieve the goal of ‘zero emissions’ during the second half of the twenty-first century.
The EU, for instance, needs to “increase considerably efforts to meet decarbonization goals by 2050.” According to contributor Alberto Amores, an energy expert and partner at Monitor Deloitte:
Reduction in GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions between 2030 and 2050 will have to be two to three times steeper than the necessary reduction between current levels and the 2030 target, which is itself steeper than reductions achieved since 1990 to date.”
Current global business-as-usual carbon emissions reductions are nowhere near what they need to be to achieve the 2C climate target. In fact, they are at least two to three times lower than what they need to be.
On the other hand, Vicente Mayor observes, clean energy is experiencing “fast penetration” across South America, such as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, where we are seeing the emergence of “new complex legal systems” governing these changing electricity ecosystems.
The theme running through all these developments, according to Mayor, is one of “increasingly distributed power generation” driven by “‘demand-side’ reform in which energy production draws closer to consumers.” Mayor describes it as “a new qualitative leap forward into societal modernization.”
The prevailing paradigm
As we near 2050, this will increasingly manifest in a clash between essentially two competing energy paradigms. These paradigms are rooted in two fundamentally different ways of seeing the world.
The critical choice ahead for the human species is laid out in the book’s Afterword by senior Spanish diplomat, Luis Francisco Martinez Montes – Chief Executive Advisor for Parliamentary Affairs to the Spanish Foreign Minister, as well as a counselor to the Spanish Mission to the United Nations in New York.
Montes argues that the current prevailing paradigm, is a “geopolitical” one, premised on “limited energy” from the environment, consumed by the human species in a competitive zero-sum game.
Within this conventional paradigm, energy, security and environmental degradation are interrelated in a “mutually disruptive” way. The more a particular nation consumes, the less available for other communities, the more damaging the consequences for the environment, and the greater the competition for limited and declining energy resources, increasing security risks.
Montes’ great insight is that without a fundamental change in this paradigm, the dawn of the age of renewable energy “could be even more complicated” from a geopolitical perspective. Montes notes that in the emerging age of dominant renewables, “access to and control over electricity grids will be the predominant determination of local, national and regional power.”
While ideally, we would want consumers themselves to play the larger role in this access and control, that outcome is far from inevitable.
Another complication is that the rare earth elements required to sustain renewable energy production and storage are, in a similar fashion to fossil fuels, heavily geographically concentrated, with obvious potential for geopolitical tension:
Technologies for production and storage of renewables depend on rare earth elements like neodymium in wind or lithium in electric car batteries. 95% of these strategic earth elements are currently produced in just one country, China.”
In September 2010, for instance, China halted the supply of rare earth materials to Japan in response to the detention of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters.
From geopolitical self-destruction to planetary ecology
In the old geopolitical paradigm, Montes explains, “limited energy is competitively captured and consumed by restricted number of organisms, to detriment of the rest; energy is mostly used inefficiently, improperly recycled, and released into environment as polluting waste; energy stocks decline and environment irremediably suffers; living organisms increasingly suffer in a world of diminishing resources.”
This creates the following two scenarios:
1. Either at some point energy consumption is drastically reduced or halted, leading human and social evolution to stop or regress in order for the environment to recover;
2. Or competition for limited resources escalates, conflict prevails and the environment is irrevocably damaged leading to a final catastrophic event, or series of events.
A new paradigm, however, is emerging.
Renewable technologies in themselves, in other words, are not a solution by themselves – their success requires a “cognitive transition”, translating into a deep change in our entire approach to the consumption and distribution of resources. In Montes’ words:
In an alternative emerging paradigm, we see the prospect of a neutral, process-based approach to energy, evolution and the environment. Here, viewed from the perspective of ‘Planetary Ecology’, Earth is viewed as a single system where energy flows and social evolution, and the environment, co-evolve in a way that is mutually reinforcing, improving conditions for life and human progress on a shared planet.”
Under this paradigm, “energy from the environment is captured and transformed to create and maintain order through renewable means. Energy waste is deposited back into the environment to regenerate.”
While some waste will be dissipated as entropy, most of it “is recycled and fed back” into the process of capturing energy, “either naturally or through artificial clean technologies.” In this model, energy keeps flowing throughout the system, the environment is sustained and human and social evolution continues.
Ultimately, says Montes, we should dispense with the prevailing “fragmented and competitive approach to the interplay between energy, security and the environment.”
Top Photo | Oil derricks are busy pumping as the moon rises near the La Paloma Generating Station in McKittrick, Calif, June 8, 2017. (AP/Gary Kazanjian)