top of page

It's time for an 'Operation Warp Speed' to end global reliance on Russian oil and gas

Technology exists right now to dramatically reduce European reliance on Russian oil and gas and many environmental and policy experts are calling on the U.S. to launch another "Operation Warp Speed"-style initiative to fund it.

Just as Operation Warp Speed provided billions of dollars to develop a vaccine that could inoculate the population against the COVID-19 coronavirus, the U.S. and other countries could mobilize the same kinds of capital to reduce dependence on the oil and gas that's funding Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

That's because it's Russia's oil and gas reserves that have allowed the country to shore up its military capabilities and retain its influence in the world after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

When Vladimir Putin took power, Russia was reeling from an economic collapse two years earlier brought on by a drop in oil and gas prices. As prices increased, so did Russia's economic fortunes and continued influence in Western Europe -- which emerged as the primary market for its fossil fuels.

"Congress has the power to free the United States and the world from the evils of fossil fuels -- not just the risks from climate extremes and pollution, but also war, blackmail, and petroleum-thuggery," wrote the Dean of the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability, Jonathan Overpack, in an opinion piece for The Hill. "Let's hope they take this challenge seriously."

In the weekend following the invasion, the renowned environmentalist and author Bill McKibben called for President Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act and contract with domestic companies to boost production of heat pumps. It's not a Sherman Tank, but these air conditioners in reverse are significantly more energy efficient than other heating and cooling alternatives and could drastically cut energy demand with their use.

That's bad for Russian energy companies, but good for Europe and the planet.

McKibben writes:

We could provide them at cost—or below cost—to Europeans, just as we did with the “lend-lease” program in the run-up to World War II. Europeans know how to install them—about a quarter of heating units installed across the continent last year were these electric heat pumps. At the moment, they make better models than we do, but their manufacturers are operating at capacity. American air-conditioner makers, like Carrier and Trane, could produce them—an air-source heat pump is essentially an air-conditioner that you can reverse. The Department of Energy, in a smaller way, announced plans to bolster the industry in November, when Kamala Harris and DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm launched a partnership with six manufacturers.

These heat pumps are only one weapon in an arsenal of technologies that are available now -- or could be made ready in the coming months -- to provide more low emission or no emission energy independence for Europe.

New district heating technologies that harvest energy from data centers have been developed by European companies like Submer, a Spanish startup that's already partnering with Intel on heating for Barcelona's new high tech complex. In the U.S. startups like Ferveret are working to solve the same problem.

Europe can also accelerate the production of new lithium ion battery facilities from companies like Northvolt, a Swedish company that's looking to ""make oil history". Hydrogen could also play a role in getting Europe to kick its Russian energy habit. For American manufacturers like ESS and Form Energy, which are developing huge batteries that can store renewable energy for long periods of time -- reducing any fears of intermittent power production -- also stand to benefit from any government spending to reduce oil reliance. \

Hydrogen has a role to play too. And that's good news for technology companies on both sides of the Atlantic. The UK is trialing a program that would roll out hydrogen boilers for home heating instead of natural gas for heating in winter months. Accelerated adoption and increased demand would be music to the ears of companies like Sunfire, a company out of Germany that makes electrolyzes to convert water into hydrogen and synthetic gas.

Europe could also speed the adoption of small modular reactor technologies that would take less time to build and could go a long way toward providing zero emission power sources for the continent. Seaborg, based in Copenhagen, has new designs that are safer, cheaper, and faster to build than conventional reactors. So do TerraPower and NuScale Power -- two American companies that are already well along in the process of building reactors in the U.S. and the European Union.

Oklo, another American company that's working on nuclear innovations, could likely be a beneficiary.

"We could build these things pretty quickly and get them out the door [if we] allowed them to be built while the final reviews are going on," said Jacob DeWitte, Oklo's chief executive and co-founder. "Especially where you have siting and where you have clear power infrastructure you can deploy this on the grid."

Because these reactors are smaller and (as the name implies) modular, they can get built effectively and quickly without the need to rely on specialty manufacturing equipment.

"The thing that’s nice about small reactors it’s not constrained by steel forgings that only a couple of places in the world can make. There are tons of different shops around the world can make these things," DeWitte said. "You can start assembly line out these reactor pressure vessels. Start with from the regulatory side and the design side with the small light water reactors. You can start moving in parallel to the advanced reactors. We cna get all of these out to market. You can get these online six months to a year."

DeWitte also said that the Defense Production Act could boost American manufacturing of supplies and ensure a head start for the country when it comes to these new technologies.

"You could jumpstart that supply chain considerably and you can get other countries in the world to broaden it," DeWitte said. "When I look at the situation right here, this is the reality of the world we’re in. We’ve spent the time we’ve had. It’s time to realize that working on climate and geopolitical security and energy security are hand in hand."

DeWitte sees clear parallels between the billions spent to develop vaccines under the "Operation Warp Speed" program initiated by President Donald Trump.

"It’s time for [Operation Warp Speed] for small modular reactors," DeWitte said. "And guess what it’s easier. There’s not the uncertainty associated with clinical trials. We know the technology can work."

bottom of page