Vladimir Putin’s anticipated glorious march of conquest and quick victory over a cowed Ukraine very quickly led to a series of unanticipated surprises for all the world to see.
First, the enormous Russian Army of conscripts has been anything but an effective invasion force. The Russian Army was fought to a standstill, suffering huge numbers of casualties and losses of tanks and material. Second, a comprehensive international sanction regime pushing Russian finance to the brink of default, discomforting the oligarchs who profited from and enabled Putin’s kleptocracy, and, of course, making life worse for ordinary Russians. Third, Putin, his dreams of glory shattered, resorts again to attacking and murdering civilians and devastating cities with each outrage broadcast globally almost in real time. Putin’s Russia in pursuit of ‘victory’ over Ukraine risks becoming a pariah state, a new North Korea, with a mad king ever fearful of assassination and kept in power by terror at home and by making nuclear threats against the world.
The good news, if any is to be found in the relentless slaughter of innocents, is a global convergence of security and ecological imperatives in response to Putin’s War. Cutting off Putin’s oil and gas income for his petrol state as global oil and gas prices soar also is global encouragement for accelerated development of a renewable energy transformation to escape both the influence of dictatorial petrol states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and others as a matter of national security and global ecological necessity.
What is most significant is not just the messages from the usual Green suspects, but the decisions taken by the largest global asset managers like BlackRock to accelerate decarbonization and reach net zero energy. Mark Wiedman, BlackRock’s international head, applauds the progress of the private sector towards decarbonization, by companies such as BMW, Rolls Royce and Hitachi, while critical of the sometimes anemic responses of politicians.
The business rationale is clear. Renewables like sun, wind, water, geothermal, green hydrogen, as well as energy efficiency have zero fuel costs and rapidly decreasing capital costs. The cost of solar dropped 89% in the last decade and 99.6% since 1976. This is driven both by technological improvements and the relentless experience-driven learning curve termed Wrights Law.
In many markets globally, solar is already competitive, cheaper than coal without subsidy and with zero fuel cost. In the US, in 2022 solar is already competitive in the west and southeast. By 2025 in all states except Nebraska, Kansas and New Jersey solar is cost competitive. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2021 renewables accounted for 70% of the $530 billion dollars in new energy capacity, with the remaining investment in new power grids and storage. In 2021, one dollar spent on wind or solar PV results in four times more electricity than one dollar spent ten years ago on the same technologies.
Renewables to replace Russian gas and oil
Strategically and ecologically the choice is clear. Either continue to be held hostage by Putin’s supplies of oil and gas that bankroll his war against Ukraine and his future targets, or accelerate the renewable energy transition that is now underway.
The US has already cut off Russian oil and gas purchases. In Europe, 40% of natural gas comes from Russia, with Germany and Italy heavily dependent. Britain imports little Russian gas but is subject to sharp global price hikes.
German vice-chancellor and minister for economy and climate protection Robert Habeck said: “the Russian attack on Ukraine must also shake Europe awake in terms of energy policy. Energy policy is security policy. Strengthening our energy sovereignty strengthens our security.”
Even if Russia cut all energy supplies to Europe, the European Commission asserts that it would be able to get through this winter. The future challenge is next winter. The response to constrained supply and rising prices is aggressive pursuit of efficiency measures that will reduce demand and lower prices. This includes incentive payments for consumers to reduce consumption.
According to the European Union Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER), existing gas pipelines can be strategically retrofitted to use hydrogen. This is both cheaper and faster than building new hydrogen pipelines. Salt caverns can also serve as storage sites for hydrogen. Hydrogen is just part of the puzzle, to be combined with electrification supplanting gas and oil systems using mass installations of air to air electric heat pumps to provide a significant fraction of heat and cooling load. Existing fossil fuel systems can be kept in place to meet peak demands for a period of time.
As quickly as possible, renewable electricity will power cars, heat and cool homes, power factories and replace high carbon emission technologies like steel and concrete production as part of the renewable turn. Economic growth will mean ecological improvement in the solar age.
Uranium: another Russian export
Russia’s energy-driven economy includes substantial uranium exports from Rosatom, the Russian state-owned company supplying a variety of uranium fuel products to Europe and the United States by Rosatom subsidiaries Tenex and Uranium One. Cutting off the purchase of Russian uranium and its flow of dollars to support Putin’s war is another strategic and ecological imperative. Russian attacks on Ukrainian nuclear plants makes it clear that nuclear plants can be employed as a terror weapon by Putin or other bad actors around the world.
The nuclear industry in the US has attempted to promote a nuclear revival based on greenhouse gas reduction potential. Putin’s war in Ukraine has made clear that nuclear energy still suffers from a series of realities that make it far less useful, far more costly, and far more dangerous than renewable energy. Nuclear power is simply not competitive with zero fuel cost renewables. Nuclear power continues to demand enormous subsidies for a supposed mature technology. The nuclear fuel cycle is, in fact, still incomplete. Huge amounts of high level nuclear waste are still stored at spent fuel pools next to reactors or in temporary cask storage. Spent fuel pools present grave ecological and security dangers. Nuclear power is also inextricably linked with nuclear proliferation and nuclear weapons development as the common first step for aspiring nuclear weapons states from India to Israel to North Korea to Pakistan and Iran.
In 2020 (latest available data), the US consumed around 49 million pounds of uranium at an average price of $33.27 dollars a pound or $1.6 billion dollars a year. The Russian share of this in direct Russian imports to the US is around 16% of US uranium consumption. Rosatom uranium is reportedly $10 dollars a pound cheaper at $23.27 dollars a pound, or a total of $182 million a year.
In addition, Russia owns 100% of the Uranium One company that operates Uranium mines in the US and supplies about 10% of US needs. Assuming Uranium One charges the average US price, that is another $163 million dollars a year sent to Moscow for a total of $345 million dollars to help bankroll Putin’s wars.
Despite receiving a $6 billion dollar subsidy in the 2021 infrastructure bill, the nuclear industry is aggressively lobbying the Biden administration not to cut off Russian uranium supplies since it might raise the prices for the already mega-subsidized nuclear industry. In terms of Uranium One’s US operations, without raising prices, the US could seize the funds from Uranium One as they did with Russian banks and continue to operate the US Uranium facilities.
Uranium One and Tenex imports to the United States may also include some of the substantial uranium imports from Kazakhstan where Uranium One, through subsidiaries and joint ventures, owns the Akdala, South Inkai, Karatau, Akbastau and Kharasan uranium mines. If the US cares about cutting off the flow of money to Putin, information on the provenance of Kazakhstan Uranium imports can be made public and appropriate action taken.
Putin has made it crystal clear. Nations can tolerate invasions and mass murder while buying Russian oil, natural gas and uranium. Or, we can collectively stop financing pillage and pursue renewable and efficiency alternatives. This clarifies the path for combating global climate change catastrophe and making oil, gas and uranium a useless relic of the self-destructive fossil fuel era. Solar panels in the long run are a more potent weapon than Stinger missiles. This is a path to pursue peace with all. Not war. It should be an easy choice.