Clean Power

Published on May 3rd, 2014 | by Guest Contributor


Solar & Global Politics, & Why Ukraine & Qatar Are Critical Hubs There

May 3rd, 2014 by  

Originally published on SolarWakeup.
By Yann Brandt

Solar may be a small portion of energy production globally but the importance in geo-politics continues to grow. All energy usage may be local, when a homeowner plugs in their cell phone charge into the wall but when it comes to energy production, it is anything but local. Looking at the recent trouble in Eastern Europe between the Ukraine and Russia, it is very apparent that energy plays a central role in the conflict.

Ukraine Map

Just take a look at the map of Ukraine showing the vast Russian pipelines going across its borders to shipping ports and the broader European markets. The EIA says that 16% of natural gas consumed in Europe flows through Ukraine. Solar plays a central role in this conflict but an even larger role in global diplomacy.

What does solar have to do with this?

As United States and European leaders look to create sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea and entering Eastern Ukraine, there is a going concern that Russian natural gas providers could restrict or even stop natural gas exports to the sanctioning Countries. As EU Countries and US States focus on lowering emissions and eliminating nuclear energy, the global dependence on natural gas has increased.

While on a political level this dependence has political ramifications, solar creates the backup plan. It reduces, especially at peak demand, the need for natural gas and is a hedge for electric grids that have a potential shortfall of natural gas fuel supply. For example, in the 1st quarter of 2014, solar met 4.2% of the German electric demand with over 36GW of total solar installed in a Country smaller than California.

Another divergence between solar and natural gas

With another divergence from natural gas, solar doesn’t have a physical pipeline. A solar panel will produce electricity anywhere without the need for infrastructure that comes with significant political and economic risk. On the opposite spectrum, solar has become a political asset for Governments as a built-in hedge against natural gas price volatility.

Thomas Friedman from the New York Times went even further with Go Ahead, Vladimir, Make My Day, his op-ed outlining the clean energy benefits from natural gas related diplomacy.

The center of solar diplomacy may sit in Qatar

Qatar is the richest Country in the world based on GDP per capita. Why? It has almost 3 times the natural gas reserves as the United States. This natural gas and oil oasis has the land mass equivalent to Connecticut may actually be the center of global solar diplomacy.

As Western European countries look for backup plans to Russian natural gas, the production in Qatar looks very appealing. But this backup plan may come at a diplomatic cost that everyone has heard of.

The SolarWorld connection

The lead plaintiff in global solar tariff complaints is SolarWorld, the solar manufacturer listed on the German stock exchange. While listed in Germany, Solarworld is actually owned 30% by Qatar Solar, which is majority owned by the Qatari Foundation. In addition, Qatar Solar is building a polysilicon production facility. Once operational, the Qatar poly factory will supply all of the SolarWorld needs according to SolarWorld officials.

The success of the Qatar poly factory is most likely based on the demand of SolarWorld across the globe and therefore the tariffs/minimum prices set by the trade complaints against Chinese manufactured products in the EU and US.

Closing the loop from Ukraine and Qatar to Berlin and Washington D.C.

Natural gas continues to play a central role in solar from price comparisons to energy dependency. For EU Countries, reliance on foreign natural gas has been mitigated with enormous investments in local solar and wind generation. The self-production hedge has allowed Western Europe to be a stronger political power with less reliance on others for fuel supply. Less reliance does not mean ‘no reliance’ and that is why Qatar remains an important part of global natural gas politics.

It is the investment by Qatar which saved SolarWorld the first time and helped them get out of bankruptcy earlier this year. The role that Qatar plays in the solar trade complaints is yet to be determined but saying SolarWorld is a German owned US solar manufacturer is an oversimplification of a very complicated global political situation where solar is a central component.

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  • Doug

    Relying on long-term stability in Russia, Ukraine, or Qatar is inane and insane. None of these countries is stable. It’s one thing for the US and Canada or Germany, France, Spain and the UK to depend on cross border energy trading. It’s a very different and very disturbing assumption that nations should create anything but a short-term arrangement for sourcing energy from areas of instability.

    The answer is for countries to be an energy independent as possible – with no national security dependency on another country. This is completely reasonable in the 21st century with the low cost of renewables, which do not require unevenly dispursed fossil fuels. International trade in energy should only be used to improve price competition, balance loads and short term energy needs.

    Taken another step further, why not apply this down to the micro grid level? Large industrial complexes, schools and college campuses, office parks and small towns can create and maintain their own micro grids – and break free of our dependence on an unmaintainable regional scale utility grid.

    • Gwennedd

      I thought Hawaii WAS investing heavily in solar.

      • Hawaiin utilities are keeping a very low limit on the amount of solar installed. WAY more demand than they are willing to allow. Is quite a messed up situation.

        • Gwennedd

          Sounds like it! Stupid policy, really! I guess not only do people have to push against climate change deniers, but the oil, gas, coal and utilities, who are all afraid of losing those precious profits they’ve come to expect. Too damn bad…sometimes life’s a b*^ch.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Might want to read this piece on HECO and solar. The issue might be a bit more complicated than the utility simply opposing solar.

          “Nearly 11 percent of HECO’s customers have rooftop solar, and some neighborhoods are so solar-heavy that they’re causing backward power flows at the sunniest times of the day — a situation that’s led HECO to put a halt on new PV interconnections, angering solar backers in the state.”

          Eleven percent is pretty high penetration with little or no hydro or natural gas to smooth things out. HECO is calling for some fairly heavy storage to help them deal with higher levels of solar.

  • rollzone

    hello. I am no insider. The LNG push for profit has been going on since the Cheney administration adopted the proposal. This is another partnership to drive up prices.

  • JamesWimberley

    The specific political impacts of mass renewables are complicated, but the general picture is simple. Almost all countries have very large wind and solar resources, sufficient to meet most of their energy needs at a reasonable price (yesterday, today, or tomorrow). Very many have enough hydro, geothermal, biomass and tidal to cover the gaps in production. EGS geothermal and wave would increase the number of potentially autonomous countries, but they are still only reasonable bets, not certainties.

    The future is one of much, much less cross-border trade in energy. What’s left will be driven by convenience and price, not necessity. Denmark’s reliance on Norwegian hydro to balance its wind farms is a good example. The risk of Norway falling into the hands of nutjob fascists who will use the leverage to blackmail Denmark is on a par with the chance of FTL space drives and cheap, clean, safe, nuclear reactors.

    This is a very good thing. A high proportion of petrostates have been and are thuggish and/or corrupt. It’s more than likely that the easy money helps keep them that way: see Venezuela. Time is not on Putin’s side, which helps explain why he’s taking such enormous risks to keep Ukraine under his thumb.

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