Over the weekend, I was listening to a play by David Mamet called the Water Engine which was written in 1977 and takes place during the Great Depression.
It is a fascinating account of how an inventor's journey of attempting to patent a disruptive alternative energy technology and its suppression by corporate forces. In the Mamet play, the protagonist, Charles Lang produces an engine utilising water- although the specifics aren't given, the engine seems to be parallel to the process of hydroelectric power, which via a process of rotating turbines with reverse circuitry magnets by giving power to coils, use the hydrogen in the water to create electricity. This is similar in concept to the way lightning is generated, when a negative electrical charge at the base and a positive charge at the top are carried by water droplets and ice crystals.
The Water Engine takes place in 1934, two years before the the US would build its Hoover dam utilising hydroelectric power that would dominate the US for the next twenty years. Although in the play, the inventor, Charles Lang and his sister are ambiguously met with an uncertain fate, hydroelectric power in the US would increase in scope throughout the 30s and 40s via President FDR's New Deal construction plans that would make hydroelectric power account for 40% of the electricity produced in the US. Currently in the US, the majority of electricity generation is from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum). Coal makes up 33%, Natural Gas 33%, Nuclear 20% whilst hydropower only makes up 6% and other renewables 7%.
The experimental Hoover Dam was built in the U.S. in 1936, which became a great source of hydroelectric power.
Hydroelectric power went into decline during the late 70s and 80s, when the Reagan Administration supported foreign policy to become allies with Saudi Arabia in order to topple the Soviet penetration of the oil market and influence in the Middle East. Although, currently all the major energy corporations, the oil and gas industries have been making incremental shifts since 2002 to hydrogen fuel cell technology (which utilises pressurised hydrogen to generate power with no release of carbon dioxide gases and the only byproduct being water) with Shell Global building the majority of the hydrogen fuel cell stations for cars in Europe and the United States, the current transition hasn't been a completely smooth one, as the markets have currently been seeing fluctuating oil prices as all producers are dumping their last drop of supplies, flooding the global market with cheap oil prices.
There has also been an interesting rivalry between electric battery powered cars (eg, Tesla Motors, Faraday Future) vs. hydrogen fuel cell cars (eg, Toyota, Honda etc). Tesla was primarily in decline until the Google founders injected capital into Tesla around 2009, and in the next 7 years we have seen its stock price surge to new highs. Although Tesla is marketed as a "green" car, the electric battery that powers the car is actually derived from fossil fuels, which is the main electric source in the US and around the world; this is in contrast to hydrogen fuel cell cars, which are powered by pressurised hydrogen and technically holds the title of the "green" car. Toyota recently announced in January of this year that it would make all of its fuel cell patents free to use in an act of solidarity to encourage the transition towards clean energy. Its plans to release the 2016 Toyota Mirai in the eastern parts of the US with free use of hydrogen fuel cell stations that they were planning to build were halted once again by the recent earthquake that Japan suffered from, just 5 years after its first attack from the tsunami-earthquake of 2011.
The Toyota Mirai, the 2016 winner of the World Green Car. Its plans to launch in the first half of this year in the U.S. have been halted by the recent Japanese earthquake this month.
Shell Global holds a winning position if either people adapt to electric battery cars or to hydrogen fuel cell cars as the world energy supply of electricity is significantly derived from gas, and in addition, Shell plans to build another 400 hydrogen fuel cell stations in Europe by 2023. As the premier UK corporation that holds vested interests in both electric and hydrogen fuel cell technology, the other possible energy competitors, such as UK's Intelligent Energy, which implements hydrogen fuel cell technology across a variety of sectors- from computers to mobile phones to telecomm stations in India, could potentially topple the gas giant's position in number 1 position, despite that the publicly traded company on the LSE (LON:IEH) has been facing some obstacles recently.
The UK's no. 1 corporation, Shell is planning to build the majority of the hydrogen fuel cell stations in both Europe and America.
Of course, as a consumer, the question is why do we need fueling stations in the first place? Why not just produce and distribute a car that runs on hydroelectric power and we can occasionally "fuel" using water from our homes instead of pressurised hydrogen at stations or electric charging stations? The answer to that, despite that there exists technology to develop and produce such cars, is that simply that profit margins would be in serious decline for car manufacturers and for energy corporations that depend on continual annual revenues for people to buy and refuel their cars and continually charge their consumer products and devices. In addition, since many governments are actively lobbied by these corporations, there exists no incentive for them to make a major change in policy to help developing startups that aim to disrupt the energy sector.
If we examine the history of green energy- and the lessons learned from KiOR, the Khosla-backed biofuel venture whose motto was to "declare war on oil" which later declared bankruptcy after it had amassed more than $600 million USD in funding; we can learn that it is not enough to develop a talented team and create innovative new ways of producing energy. Although the downfall of KiOR was briefly mentioned in the media as an oversight in management where too many PhDs had been employed who didn't know how to actually run the company, we can extrapolate that the deeper issue with KiOR is that in the energy sector, there are many interconnecting players- the manufacturers of cars and consumer electronics, the builders of homes, the current dominant energy industries, the distributors of those networks, and government regulations- that all stand in the way of preventing new technologies from becoming readily adapted by the public.
Khosla Ventures backed KiOR's "War on Oil" did not work out for them.
This is something David Mamet touches upon in his play, The Water Engine: How innovation can be violently suppressed in a system of corporativism when people are primarily motivated by profit and not by the collective good of all. However, we have to also remember that the individual people who work for corporations are not evil people who are set to destroy innovation. Rather, people are attracted to stability and familiarity and primarily motivated to provide for their own families. As I mentioned in my previous post on energy, I'd like to think that the oil industries were indirectly responsible for funding my education in both the US and the UK, where my father had been a long-time employee of the Chevron Corporation.
"The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy. In its long history Europe has experience of heretics who turned out to have a point." -David Cameron's EU speech in 2013
Instead of declaring "a war on oil", we should think of how we can work with the dominant energy industries (eg, BP, ExxonMobil, Shell Global et al) to integrate new solutions as part of a collective instead of focusing solely on disruption; the latter, an isolationist strategy that has not worked well in the history of energy.
By Sierra Choi