It’s hard not to notice, generally speaking, the stark differences in cultures, personalities and characters of leading lights in the energy and IT industries, particularly when it comes to strategic planning, organizational management and R&D, and especially when it comes to public relations and thinking “outside the box”. The apparent contrasts stand out when it comes to developing renewable energy and clean technology for power generation and transportation.
OPEC controls some 40% of world petroleum reserves – and that’s likely to increase in coming decades – giving it tremendous influence over its customers. The situation is analogous yet fundamentally different to that of Google in the Internet search engine marketplace, where a market share of more than 50% affords it the leverage to define the nature of American advertising, points out former Intel CEO Andy Grove, now a consultant to the company, in a July 10 article, “Our Electric Future,” published by The American magazine.
The difference between controlling energy resources – read oil – and advertising are great, however, Grove points out. “…the stages on which Google and OPEC play are dramatically different. Advertising is a big and important business, but energy is the lifeblood of all economies. Like drinking water or oxygen, we simply cannot be without it. So a supplier of energy can have significant control over customers – even nations.”
The US of Oil, Pilgrimages to Riyadh
Oil dependence and failed energy policies – along with the rise of new economic powerhouses China and India, which has prompted OPEC to turn its attention to its big and fast-growing customers in Asia- have led to a precipitous decline in American influence and economic power, according to Grove.
“The episode came to mind earlier this year when I read about President Bush’s visit to Saudi Arabia. His main mission was to ask the Saudis for greater petroleum output. According to press reports, his request was unceremoniously rejected by the oil minister, who did not even appear to be embarrassed. Such an exchange would have been inconceivable as recently as a decade ago. Our standing in the world of oil has fallen a long way in a short time,” Grove writes.
Briefly recounting the failed efforts of successive US administration’s to reduce, much less drive to zero, our dependence on foreign oil, Grove notes. “After Nixon, president after president set similar goals. Every target was missed. We became more and more dependent on imported petroleum. Net energy imports doubled between 1970 and 1980, and then again by 1990. Not only did America fail to meet the goals, but the goals themselves were unwise. A faulty goal leads to the wrong actions; so even if we execute flawlessly, we fail.”
Electricity: The Path to Energy Resilience
Political leaders have a tendency to fail to recognize the gravity of a situation, and then procrastinate and hesitate to take timely, sufficient adaptive and remedial actions, according to Grove, and he argues that the US may be in exactly this type of situation at present.
“As national policy, we must protect the U.S. economy from interruptions in the supply of such a critical commodity [energy] – whether those interruptions are related to natural or political causes. I believe that the appropriate aim is to strengthen our ability to adjust to such changes – to strengthen our energy resilience. We can do that by increasing our reliance on electricity.”
Almost wholly dependent on gasoline and diesel, transportation, which accounts for more than half of US petroleum consumption – will be the “hardest nut to crack,” Grove continues, and hence making real progress in building up US energy resilience cannot be made without converting a significant share of transportation to electricity, which he calls “the stickiest form of energy.”
While this is a huge and challenging task, technologies exist that, while not ideal, can get us off to good start, Grove argues, alluding to the history of the PC industry. “The first personal computers, for example, were little more than toys. They fascinated cognoscenti and hobbyists, but compared to the mainframe computers that were the workhorses of that time, they were limited. PCs quickly grew in capability and eventually reached parity with mainframes and then surpassed them in efficiency and computing power. Such approaches, of starting low and moving up, have been named ‚Äòdisruptive technologies’.”
Require Dual Fuel New Cars and Incentives to Retrofit Existing Vehicles
The U.S. government should take the lead by requiring that a growing percentage of new cars and trucks be built with dual fuel capabilities. The problem there is that this will take too long.
“No matter how fast the production of dual-fuel cars is ramped, replacing the bulk of the approximately 250 million cars on the roads in the United States with new cars will take a decade or more.
“As with PCs, the work of advocates and hobbyists shows the way out of this dilemma,” Grove writes. There are enterprising folks who have experimented with converting existing gasoline cars into electric cars by removing the gasoline engine and replacing it with an electric engine. Some are working to devise ways in which existing gasoline cars would be converted to dual-fuel cars. As with the new dual-fuel cars, these cars would give first priority to the electric power stored on board, and switch to gasoline only after the electric power is exhausted.”
Fortuitously, gas guzzlers like pick-ups, SUVs and vans – some 80 million of them on the road today – are the easiest to convert, and doing so should be “our first priority,” Grove argues.
“The instincts of conservationists have been to improve what is already pretty good – compact cars with decent fuel efficiency. Our national priority to decrease the amount of oil-based energy dictates that we go after the low-mileage part of the fleet first.
“Estimates show that converting these vehicles to dual-fuel operation, even with electricity providing no more than 50 miles of driving range between daily recharging, could cut petroleum imports by 50 to 60 percent – a stunning opportunity. ”