Back in 1633, Galileo stood trial before a Papal Inquisition and was found “vehemently suspect of heresy.” One of the greatest minds in history and arguably the father of scientific thought was put under house arrest until his death nine years later.
His crime? Describing the universe as it appeared through objective observation rather than as the church declared it to be.
Galileo was part of a brave new movement in Western thought that maintained we all exist in a shared, measurable reality. During the thousand years preceding the Renaissance, Europe languished under what could be described as “spearpoint group-think” — the world was whatever the church or king said it was, or else.
Which brings us to President Donald Trump. Some four centuries later, the idea of despotically dispensed truth is making a comeback. Climate change is a “hoax,” Trump has said, in spite of broad scientific consensus to the contrary. Muslim refugees must be banned to make the U.S. safer even though three times as many Americans are killed by armed toddlers as by terrorists — 10 times more if you exclude right-wing domestic terrorists. Environmental Protection Agency staff and scientists are being muzzled, federal funds frozen, and ludicrous extractive industry speaking points are now official government policy.
As awful as the damage done to public institutions will no doubt be, the triumphant hubris of Trump will ultimately be answerable, like all would-be despots before him, to a higher power — the real world. The fossil fuel industry now enjoys unprecedented access to political power, but this may soon prove a Pyrrhic victory. Over the palace walls, beyond the moral morass of the Washington Beltway, disruptive technologies are rapidly making these industries obsolete.
Yes, Wyoming is considering a law banning utility companies from using large-scale renewable energy, essentially commanding the tide not to rise. This is likely mere legislative lip service to big political donors in the nation’s largest coal producing state.
Out in the real world, the coal industry is doomed by plunging costs for solar generation and grid storage. Wyoming also has some of the best wind resources in the country with plans for the largest commercial wind farm in North America — a project unaffected by the anti-renewable energy law as the power will be sold to less doctrinaire customers in California.
Trump might trumpet the bright future of so-called clean coal and carbon capture, but a generating plant slated to open soon in Mississippi illustrates the economic folly of commercial carbon capture and storage. Originally budgeted at $2.88 billion, construction costs have so far ballooned to more than $7 billion and the project is two years behind schedule. Trump’s abandonment of the federal Clean Power Plan and deregulation of the competing natural gas industry will further undermine the dreadful economics of this newly minted white elephant.
A similar push by the Australian government to re-animate the corpse of its own coal industry is being plowed under by the unstoppable force of disruptive technologies. Last week utility companies publicly scoffed at the idea of re-investing in the world’s dirtiest fuel — not because of climate concerns, but due to the dismal business case. Experts at the University of Melbourne told The Guardian that installing renewable generating capacity would be half the cost and less polluting.
And California saw another nail hammered in the fossil fuel coffin last week. Tesla Storage just installed 20 megawatts of grid energy storage mere months after utility giant Southern California Edison requested a large-scale battery facility to meet peak demand. The utility wanted a better alternative to gas-fired “peaker plants,” which are brought online to meet periods of high demand, especially since a disastrous leak at a plant in 2015 that released 95,000 tons of methane.
Peaker plants make up one-third of U.S. generating capacity but are only used six per cent of the time. According to energy expert Tony Seba, storage battery costs are falling so fast that no new peaker plants will be built after 2020 and existing ones will quickly become stranded assets.
Driving this transformation are plunging prices for lithium ion batteries, which have dropped by almost half since 2014, with disruptive implications for not just for energy generation but the oil industry as well.
The mandarins at the International Energy Agency declared in 2013 that electric vehicles (EVs) would not be competitive with gas engines until battery costs dropped below $300 per kilowatt-hour, a milestone they predicted would not happen until 2020.
This boundary was actually crossed in 2015. Not coincidentally, the Chevy Bolt came to market last year as the first mass produced EV with a 200-plus mile range and U.S. price under $35,000 — and was hailed as car of the year by several industry publications.
This is just the start. As battery prices plummet by about 15 per cent per year, fully electric vehicles will continue to drop in price, crushing the economics of gas vehicle ownership (and the oil industry) due to four fundamental advantages detailed in a presentation by Seba.
The drivetrain of a conventional gas vehicle has more than 2,000 moving parts. A Tesla Model S has about 18 (depending how you count them). Electric vehicles are so much simpler to maintain that Tesla offers an eight-year, unlimited mileage warranty. The only parts that require regular replacement are the tires and windshield wipers. The conventional auto parts industry is worth about $318 billion a year in the U.S. alone — a consumer burden that is about to go the way of the dodo bird.
Depending on local gas and electricity prices, operating costs for an EV typically are one-tenth those of a conventional car. That cost drops further if you take advantage of free charging stations or hook it up to rooftop solar. Need a free fill-up? Park your car at Walmart or hundreds of other retailers now offering the same incentive to lure customers.
Even though internal combustion engines have been refined for more than 100 years, they typically remain less than 20 per cent efficient due to inherent limitations in engineering and the laws of physics. An electric motor is more than 90 per cent efficient, meaning most of the energy is used to move the wheels, not heat the surrounding air.
And although many Americans have long loved the throaty roar of a V8, the pick up of a gas engine is puny compared to an electric motor. Even the Chevy Bolt, designed with soccer moms in mind, sports highway acceleration comparable to a 300-horsepower Dodge Charger. The new Tesla Model S, at $135,000, is the third fastest production car ever made, behind the Ferrari LaFerrari costing $1.4 million and the Porsche 918 Spyder at $845,000. Consumers will soon have access to million-dollar performance for a fraction of the price.
According to Seba’s pricing projections, every new vehicle sold after 2025 will be electric — with predictable devastation to the oil industry. Bloomberg more modestly estimates that EV sales could reduce global oil demand by two million barrels per day by 2023, or about two per cent, still a large enough reduction to trigger a similar price crash to 2014 — except this one would be permanent and accelerating.
Another recent report predicts the end of oil production growth by 2020.
Technology matters far more than politics, pipelines or posturing. Trillions in global assets will be stranded regardless of what Kellyanne Conway or the rest of the palace guard have to say about it.
Don’t believe this is possible? The Eastman Kodak Company invented roll film and the Brownie camera. By 1975 it sold 90 per cent of the film used in the U.S. and 85 per cent of all cameras. At one time, it employed 145,000 people worldwide.
By 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection, destroyed by disruptive digital photography technology that, ironically, was invented by Kodak’s own engineers in 1975. A former vice-president described the debacle that will go down as one of the great business blunders of all time: “We developed the world’s first consumer digital camera but we could not get approval to launch or sell it because of fear of the effects on the film market.”
Donald Trump and entrenched interests within the Republican Party might now feast on political power, but they can’t turn back time. Appointing former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state won’t bring back the golden years of oil or forestall the coming collapse. The destruction of the EPA will not bring back the moribund coal industry, though it will wreak horrific harm on the environment. The “American carnage” of shuttered factories described in perhaps the worst-ever inaugural address was caused less by trade deals than disruptive technological automation cheered on by capitalists like Trump.
Four hundred years after Galileo was arrested for heresy, Pope Francis humbly declared that scientific observations about evolution and the Big Bang are correct and God “is not a magician with a magic wand.”
Neither is Donald Trump.
Read more: Energy, Politics, Environment
Tyee Commenting Guidelines
Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.