With more then 2.2 million readers a day, the Financial Times is the newspaper of record for economists, business leaders, and government policy makers worldwide. Think Progress claims FT, as it is known to its readers, is the “most important business read” and “the most credible publication in reporting financial and economic issues” for global professional investors, business leaders, and policy makers according to surveys.
On May 18, its lead story was entitled: The Big Green Bang: How Renewable Energy Became Unstoppable. It begins with a question, one that should leave fossil fuel industry leaders feeling glum — “Is the 21st century the last one for fossil fuels?” Before we start rejoicing, keep in mind there are still 83 years left to go in this century and the fossil fuel industry intends to extract and sell every molecule of fossil fuels it can find before the end times for oil, natural gas, and coal arrive. By the time 2101 gets here, the earth may have been unalterably changed to the point where human existence as we know it is no longer possible.
Bill McKibben, in his insightful book, Oil And Honey, makes the case clearly. The environment can withstand perhaps another 565 gigatons of carbon emissions before the environment tips over into unsustainability. After that, most of the species presently alive will simply disappear, the oceans will rise by an average of 12 feet, and global temperatures will increase to the point where traditional agriculture becomes impossible. Our children’s children may not roast to death but they very well might die of starvation.
McKibben then drops the other shoe. The world’s fossil fuel companies have reserves which, if consumed, will release 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions into the world’s already overloaded ecosystem — five times more than the environment can possibly absorb. If the fossil fuel companies dropped nuclear bombs on society, they would be vilified as monsters. But 2,795 gigatons worth of carbon may be worse than a nuclear attack. Radiation begins to abate after a few hundred years. It may be a million years of more the earth is able to recover from the fossil fuel bomb the Koch Brothers and their ilk have in mind.
The value of all those reserves is estimated at $27 trillion. That’s how much ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, the Koch Brothers, and the rest of the climate destroyers stand to lose if they are unable to tap and commercialize all assets they control. $27 trillion can buy a lot of politicians and captive think tanks who get paid big bucks to make it seem as though slowly killing ourselves is a great idea.
The Financial Times tells the story of Torotrak, a British company that has been working for 6 years on a high-tech turbocharger that will help make internal combustion engines more efficient in order to meet increasingly rigorous emissions standards. It was in talks with such global automakers as Volkswagen, General Motors, and Toyota about using its device in their cars until recently. Then suddenly, the conversations came to an abrupt halt.
Adam Robson, head of Torotrak, tells the Financial Times the companies all started telling him the same thing — “We think the shift to electric vehicles is accelerating and we have only limited R&D money to invest and we are going to put all of it into the electric car revolution.” Robson says, “This is a colossal structural shift and it’s come at a pace that has never occurred in people’s careers before in this industry.”
Electric cars are only part of the story. Renewable energy is the biggest piece of the puzzle. The key to renewable energy becoming dominant is storage systems that can capture electricity and save it for use later when the sun sets or the wind stops blowing. Right now, battery storage seems to be the method of choice for this time-shifting technology. Although still relatively expensive, battery prices are falling rapidly. They are down 50% in the past three years and expected to fall another 30% by 2021.
Everyone knows about the fantabulous Tesla Gigafactory going up in the desert outside Reno, Nevada, but the Financial Times points out there are 14 large battery factories in operation or under construction worldwide — 9 of them in China.
Other types of storage systems are also actively under development. Concentrated solar uses the sun’s energy to create molten salt or silicon. That heat can later be recaptured to create steam for conventional generators. Pumped hydro storage has been around a long time and is still a viable way of capturing electricity now for use later. There is even one company that wants to build a railroad to nowhere in the Nevada desert. It would use electricity to haul a train loaded with cement blocks up a mountain. Later, the train would descend, using a form of regenerative braking to create electricity on its way back downhill.
Pilita Clark, the author of the Financial Times story, has a cautionary tale for people in the United States. “Investors say important trends like this are obscured in countries where the existence of climate change is still so widely contested that the scale of the energy transition is under-estimated.” Clark ends by quoting Eddie O’Connor, CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power, an Irish wind farm developer. His company has just established record low prices for electricity in Chile. It easily beat providers of fossil fuel power, even though all bids had to guarantee meeting electricity demand 24 hours a day. “Fossil fuels have lost,” O’Connor says. “The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.”
Bill Gates has an interesting observation on change. He says, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.” Perhaps he was thinking of Charles and David Koch and their greedy oil business buddies when he said that. Certainly fossil fuels are not going away in the next 2 years. But 10 years from now?
It would be the sweetest of victories if the capitalist system that turned these pirates into multi-billionaires turned on them and rendered them penniless by reducing the value of all those lovely fossil fuel reserves to zero. The mythical unseen hand of free market economics giveth and it taketh away.
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