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Energy at the Speed of Technology

Fossil fuels are old.  Yes, the actual coal, oil, and gas that we burn every day comes from life on Earth that has been slowly buried and chemically changed over hundreds of millions of years.  But the technology we use to burn them is old as well.  What we typically just call oil was first used as a lamp oil 10 years before Abraham Lincoln was elected President.  To distinguish it from the whale blubber-derived oil that it replaced, it was called rock oil or petroleum (“petr” = rock “oleum” = oil).  More than the environmental movement of the late 20th century, drilling for petroleum in the mid-19th century saved the whales.  The collapse of the whaling industry as people turned to cheaper, petroleum-derived kerosene to light their homes meant that there were actually some whales left to save 100 years later!

Just as this newfangled petroleum was catching on, the rise of electricity in 1890s nearly killed it off.  Once people didn’t have to worry about the smell and smoke of kerosene whenever they wanted light (not to mention the fire hazard of having lamps burning all over your house), the demand for petroleum plummeted.  Thomas Edison famously boasted, “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles,” and then proceeded to make it a reality.

There was a problem with electricity, though: you couldn’t use it to power something that moved.  Batteries at the time were cumbersome, acid-filled buckets and no one had much use for a ship or train that needed a power cord.  Steam powered the people-movers of the day, but it was the adoption of the more powerful internal combustion engine –in ships, trains, cars, and eventually planes– that assured the oil industry’s survival and continues to sustain it today.

battery energy

For more than a century, we’ve worked at getting the most out of oil and other fossil fuels.  We’ve developed higher-energy petroleum products, such as the jet fuel that powers our modern airplanes and the kerosene-based rocket fuel that blasted us to the Moon.  Even though our cars’ average fuel economy today is still barely 25 mpg, modern engines have become exponentially more powerful.  A run-of-the-mill, 4-cylinder Toyota Camry’s engine puts out more horsepower (178) today than the muscular, V-8 1965 Ford Mustang (164).  That extra power in modern engines isn’t being used to go faster; it’s being used to move much heavier cars.  That ’65 Mustang was a mere 2,556 pounds, while the 2015 model tips the scales at a beefy 3,727 pounds.

It was the energy crisis of the 1970s that made us look around for alternatives to fossil fuels.  The first solar cells and electricity-generating wind turbines appeared during that era, but they were woefully inefficient and expensive.  But they, and other renewable energy sources like hydrogen fuel cells, have an advantage: they’re young.

Technology moves forward quickly, but the fastest changes occur when the technology is just a few years old.  The Wright Brothers achieved their first brief flight in 1903 and aircraft powered by jet engines came along just 41 years later.  Robert Goddard developed the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and the liquid-fueled Saturn V (burning some highly-refined kerosene to break free of Earth and reach the Moon) had its first launch a mere 37 years later.

Today, technology seems to be moving forward faster than ever before.  Hundreds of millions of people carry more computing power in their pockets than all of the computers used during the entire Apollo program combined.  We mostly use it to check our messages, find photos of cats, and occasionally talk to people.  And this rapid advance in technology has also made recently-developed renewable energy resources much more accessible.  The price of solar panels continue to fall precipitously as the technology to make them becomes more streamlined and efficient.  Wind turbines cost a tenth of what they did just 35 years ago.

Once the initial burst of innovation and improvement wears off, technologies continue to improve but the improvements taper off, becoming less revolutionary and more incremental.  Airplanes today are more fuel-efficient, more powerful, and have longer range, but the basics of powered flight haven’t changed much since the first jet engine was built.  And 50 years later, the Saturn V is still (for now) the world’s most powerful rocket.  We can probably squeeze some more efficiency out of our fossil fuel technology.  But where we’ll see improvement by leaps and bounds in the next 50 years will be in the young, still-developing technologies of renewable energy.

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