BEWARE of experts. The Times warned in 1894 that by the middle of the 20th century, thanks to London’s 300,000 horses, the capital’s streets would be buried under 9ft of manure.
Horses pulled every means of street transport, from taxis and buses to manure carts to clean up the mess.
At the first international urban planning conference, held in New York in 1898, horse shit was actually top of the agenda (the conference broke up a week early as no one could solve the problem).
Within two decades, the internal combustion engine had made horse-drawn transport obsolete.
We are now approaching a similar revolution in transport – and make no mistake, it will be a social, political and economic revolution as well.
Last week, the UK Government announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars would be banned in the UK by 2040 to encourage people to buy electric vehicles.
This decision, backed by France and Scandinavia, will have historic consequences. As Molesworth, Ronald Searle’s “gorilla of 3B,” sagely pointed out: “History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.” If you don’t believe him, ask Eastman-Kodak. Remember Kodak?
In 1976, Kodak sold 90 per cent of the photographic film in the US. However, by the late 1990s, Kodak executives refused to accept a world without traditional film and failed to meet the growing Japanese digital revolution.
Within a decade the company was in deadly trouble. Kodak, who actually invented the first digital camera and hid it for fear of losing their roll film sales, was in 2012 forced to file for bankruptcy protection.
Future history books will probably record this decision on electric cars as Big Oil’s Kodak moment. It also marks the end of the fossil fuel-based industrial revolution, which began in England nearly two centuries ago.
The beginning of the end for the internal combustion engine, an invention which changed the world for ever, now means the end of oil as we know it.
The electric cars revolution suddenly threatens some of the biggest companies in the world, just like Kodak. And, as Corporal Jones observed, “They don’t like it up ‘em.”
Because the big oil companies are already in trouble. The heady days of OPEC controlling the market are long gone, thanks to North American shale oil.
Now, every time the oil price climbs above $50, US shale drillers just turn on the taps, grab a profit and add to the glut. Oversupply then forces oil prices down again.
OPEC and the big drillers just cannot compete. Saudi Arabia’s Aramco is suddenly selling off assets as fast as it can. The other big oil companies like Shell, BP, Exxon and Total can barely make a profit out of expensive conventional oil wells.
The implications are profound. Ever since Winston Churchill bought into the Anglo Persian Oil Company (now BP), as the answer to the Royal Navy’s fuel needs back in 1913, oil has been the source of wars, geographic grabs, economic shocks, and has changed history.
At the time of the Arab oil embargo in 1973, oil accounted for nearly half of global energy supply. Now it’s down to 30 per cent. Oil is declining in importance and, as the electric and green revolutions accelerate, will become a rapidly dwindling asset.
The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is warning that this energy transition will put severe strains on global financial stability.
Already shareholders in the West are demanding that oil companies explain what they plan to do once new technology lets the world wean itself off oil.
Stock market oil prices are sliding. The oil industry’s historic cry, “Drill, baby, drill!” now meets a baffled response: “Keep it in the ground!”
But even that doesn’t work. Countries that relied on oil for their income are now facing uncomfortable budget realities, as in Sturgeon’s Scotland, or economic disaster as in Venezuela, Jeremy Corbyn’s “model of enlightened socialism”.
Really? Since the price of crude collapsed in 2014, the world has seen the damage that over-reliance on oil can cause. Venezuela, sitting on some of the biggest oil deposits in the world, is now a financial basket case on the brink of revolution, with economic collapse and serious social unrest across our TV screens.
The demise of oil will not be cheap or painless.
But, as politicians and markets prepare for the new electric age, oil’s demise will be inevitable.
First, however, there are a few problems to be sorted. Batteries, for example: how do you store electricity?
The holy grail of the electric researchers is a cheap, light, long-life battery. That’s some way off yet, but scientists are adamant that new lithium technology offers a viable solution. But it still takes hours to charge an electric car and it’s only good for 300 miles. That means a drive from London to Edinburgh could take two days. That’s progress?
Second, another area that needs careful thought is that there will be a need for enormous numbers of electric car charging stations in the next few years.
In theory, every home should be able to charge its vehicle. That’s going to be fun. Every street in Acacia Avenue drawing electricity for its car? At present, just 15 electric charging points in a suburban street black out the whole neighbourhood.
That leads inevitably to where is all this wonderful new electricity going to come from? If every car is a plug-in, that’ll take a lot of electricity: how exactly are we going to generate it all?
In Britain there is barely enough generating capacity to keep the lights on in a bad winter, let alone charge millions of electric cars. And can you imagine the TRNC’s pathetic oil burning power station trying to produce enough electricity to run thousands of electric cars, let alone setting up individual house charging points in places like Dipkarpaz or Lefke?? The problems of providing and distributing electricity are mind boggling.
The answer is more power stations. But what is then going to fuel all these power stations? Oil? Gas? Nuclear? Coal? That rather defeats the object of the whole exercise, you might think, although natural gas is likely to be the last fossil fuel to be used, because of its relative cleanliness.
But many questions still remain unanswered. Some scientists are looking to thorium fission, using a plentiful, safe, low-radioactive element to produce cheap electricity, but that’s still some way off.
Others are pointing out that the ‘fuel cell’, catalysing hydrogen and oxygen from water, is a better bet. The truth is that no-one has yet come up with the answer for what will be a vast, off-the-scale increase in demand for cheap electricity.
However, the electric vehicle revolution is inevitable in one form or another, despite the cries of the gainsayers who point out (correctly) that half the world’s transport still relies on diesel trucks, buses and shipping. They should be careful, however: times are changing faster than they realise.
Even now, Volvo is developing an eight-axle electric lorry and a number of Scandinavian ferries are already powered by electric motors.
Short of a major war, there will be no turning back technological progress or the demands of the market place and two decades will see unimaginable developments.
Ever quick to adapt to the market, some big oil companies are already shifting their business models, desperately searching for fast-charging, long-life batteries.
Shell is preparing to install charging points at its service stations around Britain, adding ingenuously that “these represent an opportunity to sell drivers more products at its convenience stores while they wait for their batteries to charge”. A long wait, as things stand?
Looks like Big Oil, unlike Kodak, will have to remember what happened to the dinosaurs: “adapt or die”. . .
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