Study Tour Report
Study Tour visit Report on Renewable Energy Transition

Dr. Medha Bisht at the US Study Tour visit.

Dr. Medha Bisht at the US Study Tour visit.

© @Medha Bisht

The weeklong interactive study tour organized by the World Order and Globalization Hub in May 2023 with the energy stakeholders in Washington DC and Portland, Oregon, was a rather insightful visit. This interaction that was organized with the larger theme of 'Renewable Energy Transition' was a learning process on many fronts.

The education tour started with a short interaction between participants with everyone giving an excellent overview of the energy transition in their respective countries. Representing South Asia, I highlighted the nuances of energy transition being witnessed in the Ganges Brahmaputra and Meghna Basin. With a population of over 500 million, GBM is one of the most populated basins in the world. Confronted with the challenge of ‘too much and too little water, the politics of renewable energy transition is certain to animate the geopolitics of South Asia. GBM has been an ecologically and geopolitically sensitive area that requires resilient solutions. With all countries being rich in renewable energy resources, the geo-economic of energy resources could play out in prominent ways in the years to follow.

A few takeaways from the discussion were that India and China are the primary players in renewable energy, thus South Asia will be an important region in US foreign policy priorities. What also came to light is that ‘just energy transition’ has not been a core discussion area in the energy policies formulated by South Asian countries, and translation of this norm would be a major challenge. Also, there is no discussion on water- energy-climate change nexus. In fact, throughout my interactions, I felt the water-energy-climate nexus is not touched upon seriously and some of the debates on water, energy and climate remain segmented. Even though climate change remains an imminent challenge, an integrated, holistic yet dynamic approach is still missing in the water-energy policy frameworks.

The formal interaction started with a field trip to Professor Scott Sklar’s house in Arlington, Virginia, which has been designed to utilize only renewable energy. Professor Sklar teaches part-time at Washington University and is the President of The Stella Group. Known for utilizing a hybrid combination of wind and solar for his home's energy needs, Professor Sklar is a fine example of practicing sustainability. This was a very rich learning experience for all, as the group got to witness in person a home fully reliant on solar/geothermal power.

This was followed by an interaction with Medha Suryapundi, a Professional Staff Member of, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Energy, Climate, and Grid Security Subcommittee. During the interaction, Suryapundi provided an invigorating insight into the US policy, where distinctions between the Republicans and Democrats were apparent. This was a great start to the multiple meetings which followed with representatives from the American Council of Renewable Energy, Atlantic Council, Centre of Strategic and International Studies, Energy and Natural Resource Committee, Senate, Alliance to Save Energy, and Dentons Energy. The focus of these interactions was on national-level issues, geopolitics, geo-economics, and the US engagements to secure supply lines. The impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine was apparent in all discussions with a major focus being on the necessity of a transatlantic alliance.

During the interaction on the Transatlantic alliance, and the role of US allies in energy geopolitics we held discussions on issues related to critical minerals, the concept of NIMBY, the IRA Act, the future of nuclear energy, bipartisan politics, and the politics of the national grid in the US and potential of on-shore and off-shore wind energy. Moreover, the relationship between politics and business, entrepreneurship, tax credits, and specific issues related to smart grids, electric vehicles, offshore wind energy, and energy planning and pricing were touched upon in almost all the discussions.

In Portland, we discussed some significant issues of best practices, the role of states in US policy drafting, sustainable energy transitions and the impact on indigenous communities. The issues of inclusivity, civil society participation, grid resilience, community benefit sharing agreement, bargaining and negotiations (trade-offs) were of specific interest to me as a researcher. A special discussion on the Columbia River also revealed to us the dynamics of energy cooperation which is very much relevant to the South Asian region. To me specifically, the broad themes of geo-economics/politics, livelihood, and technology stood out.

However, there are three specific takeaways that I identify as cases for active learning and partnership.

  1. Federal Politics in the United States: One of the key challenges for the United States lies in the nature of the renewable energy transition. Understanding federal politics and the dynamics of the changing demands from the grid is timely in this regard. Building of transmission lines means that multiple stakeholders come to the negotiating table. This includes the states, regulators, utilities, energy companies, landowners, community, and environmental groups amongst others.  The nature of issues and positions in domestic politics of the United States are bipartisan in nature and this has been manifesting in the politics and policies around integrated energy grid. Some of these issues find resonance in South Asia, not only at the inter-state level but more importantly at the intra-state level. Hence, comparative studies on the problems and opportunities confronting the integrated national energy grid could be of interest to scholars working in South Asia. South Asia is a new entrant in the renewable energy sector. The Himalayan countries of South Asia have a rich potential for wind and solar power, meanwhile, coastal countries have rich potential for onshore and offshore wind energy. Following debates and sharing experiences with the United States could be useful in this regard.
  2. Energy Policy and Diplomacy: With the unfolding of the politics of climate change economics of energy will be changing the geo-political landscape. South Asia with its proximity to China will be an important region in the international relations of energy policy. Following the geo-political posturing of the United States in the energy field is a must for any student who is interested in the International Relations of South Asia. This is particularly important given the discourses on adaptation and mitigation in South Asia. The role of non-state actors (civil society) in the field of energy politics and policy is also relevant for South Asia, given the domestic and transnational space they occupy in the region. Practices related to green innovation particularly examples like the Neighborhood Sun, which focuses on the role of community are significant in this regard. How the consumers are changing to producers (Prosumers), and the nature of community benefit-sharing agreements were some interesting aspects that came to the fore. Strategies adopted by states revolving around green energy laws, green hydrogen production in the US which is an effective decarbonizing strategy, and the use of Ocean energy as an effective part of renewable energy are some insightful areas for further learning.
  3. Best Case Practices: The United States is currently witnessing a range of reforms, debates, and discussions in the energy sector. A key area in this regard is the issue of distributed energy generation which raises key questions related to scale and resilience. Following discussion around research and development in this crucial area would be useful to South Asia, as it highlights aspects of decentralizing the energy sector, an aspect that is critical for understanding energy reliability.  The visit to Portland, Oregon, and conversations with multiple energy stakeholders were useful in this regard and could benefit South Asia given the contention and diversity involved in the energy sector.

Adam Du Bard, Senior Programme Associate, and Anne Marie Simon, Programme Associate were great to be with and yes, the food and drinks were lovely too. I would like to thank Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) South Asia for nominating and inviting me for this very enriching educational tour, as this interaction will definitely be a critical part of my research and thinking. Foundations like FNF are an effective bridge between multiple stakeholders like academics, policymakers, researchers, and activists. Such forums are needed for creating bridging pathways to think, reflect and communicate on issues such as energy, water, and climate change, which are primary challenges in the twenty-first century.