Imagine you and your loved ones have just been seated at a family restaurant, when a waiter arrives to blandly intone:
“Our specials tonight are either the arsenic à la oilsands with bitumen biscuits, or the crepes Californiumwith plutonium pudding. Other entrées, salads, and vegetables are not available at this time. May I take your order?”
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This offer, of course, sets up doomed diners to pay their bill just before ending up on slabs at the morgue. And pity the poor, bewildered coroner who must identify the deadly stomach contents—in a hazmat suit.
Yet such a binary menu of equally fatal poisons is precisely what dominant energy incumbents and their enablers are framing as a crucial ‘bridge’ to some far distant renewable future. Fossil and nuclear lobbyists showed up in ever greater force at the 2022 COP 27 climate conference in Egypt, posing as save-the-climate crusaders.
But their bridge-to-be is so last century. On the metrics of cost, proven performance, reliability, public safety, meteoric scale increases, competitive ingenuity, supplier diversity, world security, cross-sector carbon reductions, and more equitable global wealth distribution, green power is now the best survivor game for our global village.
Where is that evidence? Everywhere—starting with a fusion fireball some 93 million discreetly distant miles away. Only a mere micro-fraction of its eternal energy output powers every form of life, and underpins every economy, on this Earth. That ‘solar constant’ in turn energizes every solar panel and wind turbine, fleets of which are being built at accelerating speeds and scales because their production costs are now lower than all their rivals.
Most thrilling, under construction now are battery storage and hydrogen technologies which will be paired with renewable power projects to deliver emissions-free power virtually anytime for heavy industries on every continent, or for sea-going ships or airline fleets.
This qualifies as miraculous. Yet it remains almost invisible because mainstream media platforms fail to calculate its cumulative global mass and velocity. At best the public is getting scattered snapshots taken at ground level, instead of a panoramic satellite survey.
Skeptics can consider this, for starters: In 2022 the combined installed electric power capacity for Canada was about 150,000 megawatts. That powered all the homes, farms, factories, auto plants, mines and metal smelters, office towers, businesses, schools, hospitals, libraries, and recreation centres in an affluent G7 nation.
That same year, 300,000 megawatts of new solar panels were produced by just the top six global manufacturers. Wind farms added another 110,000 megawatts of peak output in 2022, bringing cumulative global wind capacity to almost one million megawatts.
How is it possible that solar and wind technology are already delivering each new year more than twice the total peak power capacity it took Canada a century to build?
The astonishing answer is that—from a manufacturing perspective—solar panels and wind turbines are more akin to flat-screen TVs, laptops, and cell phones than giant coal, gas, and nuclear plants or hydro dams. Like other consumer products, copies can be made by the thousands or millions at hundreds of global production plants. It typically takes just 40 seconds on an assembly line to finish making a solar panel. A single new production-line wind turbine built for open ocean wind farms can power 136,000 homes annually.
This comparative simplicity and speed endows such green ‘knock-off’ technologies with the ability to out-compete fossil or nuclear rivals on cost, construction times, and reliability. In Europe or the United States, it takes more than a decade to licence and build a new 3,000-MW nuclear plant, while just the top tier of global solar companies can now punch out 300,000 MW of panels for installation annually.
That 100-fold difference in manufacturing scale also means—as with consumer electronics, Heinz ketchup, ‘60s vinyl rock records, or the iconic 1950s Volkswagen—that solar panel and wind turbine production costs per unit go down as scales and sales go up. Lower costs lead to even more sales, which drives investments to escalate scale and research spending to improve performance, and panel or turbine longevity.
This ascending green power success is due fundamentally to physics, chemistry, and production economics, not environmental, public safety, or job creation benefits. In 2023, global green power capital investment is slated to exceed $US1 trillion.
In a word, ‘replication’ is the boring but potent secret sauce for solar and wind power. In contrast to mammoth, custom-designed nuclear and fossil fuel plants, stamping out countless identical units from 24/7 assembly lines underpins lightning production speeds, fast project construction timelines, scalability, and lower costs per unit.
Leading solar panel manufacturers also deliver a product with unique performance and longevity guarantees—because they have no alternative. They cannot qualify for large project contracts, or obtain bank financing or project insurance, unless independent testing labs certify that their panels will generate their rated power for 25 years or more. This creates a gold standard of performance—one neither fossil fuel nor nuclear plants can match.
The 300,000 MW of new solar panels produced globally in 2022 testify to Henry Ford’s venerable formula: make a Model A and copy, copy, copy. Better still, solar panels are essentially open-source templates (with zero moving parts) which can be made, bought, licenced, re-configured, and upgraded by countless research labs, competitors, and global suppliers….
Meanwhile, global nuclear plant capacity fell to its lowest level in four decades precisely because every reactor model features thousands of customized, complex parts and exotic materials made by a mere handful of specialist manufacturers. Operating under intense heat and pressure within withering reactor radiation zones, they increasingly fail, crack, and corrode with age.
This real-world reactor performance opens the door to extortionate payment demands for one-of-a-kind parts or repairs—even from the very suppliers responsible for egregious manufacturing flaws. After decades of paying merciless mark-ups, most utility operators now belatedly know those back-end blackmail costs are baked into the nuclear power business model.
Even more expensive surprises, and long construction delays, have plagued all of the new reactors under construction in England, France, Finland and the U.S. state of Georgia in recent years. Solemn vows to meet budgets and construction deadlines at their shovel-turning celebrations proved worthless. Yet again.
By contrast, utilities or power procurement entities around the globe are now driving down costs, and precluding sole-supplier squeeze plays, by holding perpetual green power auctions.
These pit dozens of solar panel makers, or wind turbine companies, against each other to win major long-term power supply contracts at guaranteed prices. A key feature is that these are ‘pay for performance’ contracts—winning bidders simply do not get paid if they don’t deliver the electrons they promise.
This tough love dynamic forces green power developers to:
• Build large solar or wind projects on budget;
• Scale up production at panel and turbine plants to drive down unit costs;
• Invest in innovations to improve performance;
• Typically complete large projects in less than two years.
Green power thrives under such fiscal discipline because its top three trump cards are replication, replication, and replication.
In such a competitive arena, nuclear can’t even get in the game, and new natural gas projects are fast becoming zombie options because they embed decades of future carbon emissions and global cost contagion risks due to wars, extreme weather events, and market manipulations by corporate goliaths, fuel brokers, and petro-state cartels.
Consider the energy and economic peril Europe faced in 2022 after Russian president Vladimir Putin cut key gas and oil exports as a way to punish NATO allies for aiding Ukraine following the illegal invasion ordered by Moscow.
Perversely, that drove up global oil and natural gas prices, which allowed Russia to garner windfall revenues to offset the cost of its brutal war on Ukraine. (Countries like China, India, and Turkey covertly bought huge volumes of Russian oil at prices pegged below steeply increasing world prices). To hide this dirty business, Russia bought a fleet of aging oil tankers, some of which became ‘ghost ships’ when their location transponders were turned off.
Simultaneously, anonymous broker-speculators in London, New York, Frankfurt, Beijing, and Singapore made record profits stoking—with the click of computer keys—global panic buying of oil and LNG. Some oil shipping companies connived their own gouging, which was added to the delivered price per barrel.
All these machinations doubled the net income of fossil fuel majors to $US4 trillion in 2022, and brought annual global consumer spending on fossil fuels to $US10 trillion for the first time. This may have amounted to the biggest single reverse transfer of wealth in history—from the many to the oil-igarch few.
So Putin made tyranny profitable despite lower volumes of Russian oil exports, and used net revenues to relentlessly attack Ukraine. Fossil majors like ExxonMobil, and predatory petro-states like Saudi Arabia, cashed in while spending virtually nothing on new refinery capacity. Finally, Putin also threatened Ukraine’s largest nuclear plant, raising the spectre of a second Chernobyl catastrophe.
These chilling gambits illustrate how fossil fuels and nuclear plants can be weaponized, torqued, and twisted to benefit many dominant energy players while putting the planet and its people in a world of hurt.
Now try to imagine how Putin could gain comparable leverage and lucre by declaring a halt on sales of Russian solar panels and wind turbines to Europe, or threatening to aim artillery at solar or wind farms in the Ukraine. Such threats would be laughably impotent. This may explain why Putin’s Russia has a negligible solar and wind industry, with nothing to export.
But because the sun shines and the wind blows freely everywhere, and so cannot be monopolized or weaponized, green power technologies have intrinsic qualities that foster energy independence and minimize the blackmail tactics of despots, petro-states, or climate-denying and –defying behemoths like ExxonMobil.
Since mass produced panels and wind turbines come in countless models, from hundreds of suppliers in diverse regions, they are impervious to geopolitical embargoes, economic extortion, cartel tactics and global price-fixing schemes. No 21st century tyrant can succeed in cornering or even crimping such diverse, expanding global green trade.
Thus the paths to a more peaceful and prosperous world are at hand because a dynamic triad—replication, innovation, and scale-driven cost reductions—now allows ‘electrify everything’ economies. The proof is embedded within countless on-the-ground green power projects now being built in astonishing ways and places across the globe.
So new iterations of a boring, century-old business model turn out to be the smartest, cheapest, fastest, safest, and most elegantly functional way to reinvent humanity’s future. Replication at scale is the catalyst. Hope beckons, because finally this green ascent has a global mass and velocity that is unstoppable.
Excerpted from Paul McKay’s latest book, Atomic Accomplice, now available for free download.
Governments, rather than making choices that can lead to transformative change, are wedded to an “all of the above” approach. This enables existing centralized power structures — the fossil fuel, nuclear, and automotive industries – to continue the trends of inequity, injustice and social chaos that are hastening Canada’s path to ecological devastation.