Editor’s Note: Clark Miller is associate director for faculty and professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, College of Global Futures. Jeremi Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He has a new book publishing this fall, “Civil War By Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy.” The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
In the wake of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the world needs a massive international effort to liberate democracies from their dependence on oil produced by Moscow and other dictatorial regimes.
In short, the world’s democracies need a green energy Manhattan Project, patterned after the no-holds-barred World War II-era effort to harness the power of the atom.
Unlike that famous nuclear program of decades ago, a modern-day effort should focus on the widespread production of green energy, leveraging the West’s technological ingenuity and industrial might to usher the region into a future free of the influence of petrostates.
And that’s not just our view: News reports this week said that one of America’s leading captains of industry, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, is urging President Joe Biden to develop a “Marshall Plan” to shore up energy security in the United States and Europe, referring to the US-led effort to rebuild a war-ravaged Europe after World War II.
The urgent entreaty from Dimon came during a meeting of business leaders at the White House on Monday, as energy prices in the United States spiral higher almost every day, pushed upward by market reaction to Russia’s butchery of its smaller neighbor.
Earlier this month, Europe made a down payment on one such initiative, vowing to end its reliance on Russian energy by 2030. Now it’s time for the United States to end its own dependence on fossil fuels and become a world leader in promoting affordable, accessible clean energy.
For more than a century, the world’s addiction to fossil fuel has undermined international security and entangled the US and Europe in damaging relationships with authoritarian regimes, from Saudi Arabia to Iran to Indonesia.
Oil payments from Western countries financed terrorist networks around the world and led to the repression of democratic activists during the Arab Spring. Petrodollars also allowed despots to build aggressive military forces, the tragic consequences of which are being seen now in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The world’s democracies sought out these relationships because we needed fossil fuel provided by the petrostates. At the time, our leaders felt they had few good alternatives. But now, as we face the very real possibility of an expanded conflict in Europe, a new Cold War, and perhaps even a Great Powers nuclear standoff, we must end the role of fossil fuels as the primary energy source for global markets.
Accomplishing that goal requires severely curtailing worldwide demand for oil: We need to aggressively pivot to electric vehicles and to build out global green hydrogen for use by industry and heavy transportation. And that demands the kind of integrated innovation, manufacturing, and deployment efforts pioneered by the Manhattan Project.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine developed a robust assessment of the diverse costs to accelerate decarbonization in their 2021 report Accelerating Decarbonization of the US Energy System (2021) in which they estimated that the move to green energy would cost $350 billion over 10 years. A Manhattan Project today would entail rapidly expanding the manufacture of electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electrolyzers, heat pumps, and a wide variety of other technologies.
It will also mean building new and sustainable supply chains in critical minerals, steel, and other materials that rely on North American and European mining – bypassing Russia and China. A Manhattan Project for renewable energy also means that we’d have to jump-start global efforts at addressing the looming global threat posed by climate change.
There is a good precedent for the kind of intensive investments needed as we embrace a future in which we will rely on these new energy technologies. During the last major war in Europe, the United States made an unprecedented commitment to the Manhattan Project. The storied scientific effort harnessed the destructive power of atomic energy, and it unleashed its productive possibilities.
In Oakridge, Tennessee, the US built the largest industrial facility on the planet to separate uranium isotopes. In Richland, Washington, the US government financed a fleet of nuclear reactors to manufacture plutonium.
Meanwhile, many of the largest US companies of the day threw their technological, managerial, and logistical capabilities into the project, as did the US military. Iconic American companies like DuPont, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak drove industrial innovation across innumerable fields to meet the project’s unprecedented requirements for technological performance. At its peak, the Manhattan Project employed 129,000 people, including hundreds of the nation’s top scientists.
Even an unprecedented global effort to develop renewable energy won’t be sufficient to immediately get us to energy independence. But we’re at a pretty good starting point. Solar and wind energy are already the cheapest forms of new electricity generation on the planet – and they are key contributors to the world’s energy sources. In 2021, solar and wind provided 13% of US electricity. Combined with nuclear and hydro energy, total non-carbon electricity generation was 40%.
Electric vehicles are already being manufactured and purchased by the millions, and Tesla, Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford, Stellantis, and other US and European auto manufacturers are working to rapidly scale up their production. We already know how to make hydrogen from electrolysis and have the technologies to do so at scale; we need to deploy those capabilities for critical industrial and transportation services that can’t be easily or inexpensively electrified.
Given Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, it’s no surprise that the EU is ramping up renewable energy technologies. Setting up local manufacturing plants would provide a dramatic economic boost across the continent at a historic economic juncture.
But Europe cannot succeed alone. A global manufacturing and supply base will be necessary to provide the materials, equipment, parts, and training. The benefits, particularly to Eastern Europe, would remind them – and the rest of the world – of the value of their relationships with the US. Cooperation on a renewable energy future would provide a robust economic foundation for NATO and other US alliances around the globe.
There’s one big difference between the Marshall Plan and the Manhattan Project: The Marshall Plan was about rebuilding and reconstruction. What’s needed now is innovation and transformation.
Whether you call it a Manhattan Project or a 21st century Marshall Plan, the effort to ramp up our renewable energy infrastructure is a vitally important opportunity to fundamentally alter the geopolitics of oil and gas.
And it would give the world better options than merely shifting demand to dirty fossil fuels originating in places other than Russia. The very act of hampering Moscow’s ability to sell oil and gas will thwart its ability to fund its imperial ambitions, removing the knife that this oil-financed regime has held to our throats for far too long.