Tesla and Solar Impulse and Alberta’s need for Diversification

The first human flight occurred on October 15, 1783, when a Frenchman created a hot-air balloon. However, that flight didn’t allow us to soar like birds. So between 1899 and 1903, the Wright Brothers experimented and created various contraptions that were intended take people birds. On December 17, 1903, after several attempts, on Wilbur Wright’s second flight, they managed to change the world. For, they flew 852 feet in 59 seconds. At the time, there might have been those who might have scoffed at the accomplishment, but they would soon realize the folly of their way.

For by 1919, John Alcock and Arthur Brown would be the first pilots to cross the Atlantic non-stop. By 1927, Charles Lindbergh would make his historic flight between New York and Paris to win the Orteig Prize. While, he was the 19th person to make the cross, he was the first person to do it solo. So is the strength of human ability and human accomplishment.

History tells us that human ability is a great force and never should be underestimated. Over the years, I have heard many people – economists and conservatives – say that we don’t have the technology to move away from a Carbon based technology. As Tesla and the Solar Impulse have demonstrated, the technology is either here or will be here shortly. The only problem is the costs of development and the cost of transition.

Think about electric cars. In the early 1990s, California mandated that electric cars should be a part of every car manufacturer’s portfolio. Or put differently, Car companies were told that if they wanted to sell cars in California they had to suck up the development costs of creating electric cars. According to documentaries and sources, like “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, many companies took up that challenge. The flagship example of this new car was General Motors EV1. Produced between 1996 and 1999, it was the first mass-produced and purpose-designed electric vehicle. At the time, EV1 and its many counterparts were said to have been able to preform about 90%+ of the necessary daily commuting tasks that citizens and residents needed to perform. So the issue was not the technology or its development

The only issue was that the political class was not onboard. Or put differently, there was not a requirement to move to 100% electric cars and no consensus among California’s or the American Federal political class that that should be the goal. As a result, politicians changed, some unanticipated costs came to the fore and a profitable project was abandoned. So much so that the only surprise was that it took nearly twenty years for new and old automotive manufacturers, including Tesla Motors, Nissan and Toyota, to come to the market with various types of hybrid or electric cars sans the heavy hand of government. Consequently, the issue surrounding this project has never been the market but political will. The technology to begin decarbonizing society is here, the only question is a matter of timing.

Therefore, the crossing of the Pacific by a fully electric plane – coupled with the strong development of electric and hybrid cars – has to indicate that a significant change on the energy front is on our doorstep and Alberta is not ready for that change. Don’t believe me think about Abraham Gesner. He is the Canadian largely credited with discovering Kerosene. When Mr. Gesner and his compatriots started developing, selling and marketing Kerosene, they took market share from the whaling industry who sold much of their product (i.e. whale oil) as lamp fuel. Or think of the significant decline of the coal industry due to the rise of use of oil and natural gas. Because of those changes, the coal mines of Nova Scotia have fallen into disuse. Meanwhile, the coal mines in Appalachia have had to move to increasingly environmentally destructive methods just to kept afloat. This is all while the Oil and Natural Gas Fields in Montana, Texas, Newfoundland, Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC have just continued to be even increasingly profitable. Consequently, the only consistent trend of the last two hundred years of energy use has been to turn quickly towards the most abundant, cheap and easily usable fuel. From Candles to Whale Oil, to Kerosene, to Oil, we have made quick changes when they were needed. So why won’t our change to Solar, Wind or Hydro be as dramatic? Just look at other human accomplishments.

The Americans moved in eight years from planning to go to the moon to accomplishing that goal. For, it was only on May 25, 1961 when President Kennedy began to talk about it. While on September 12, 1962, he gave Americans a challenge of going to the moon. It was then that he said:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

That is why in 1969, a man walked on the surface of the moon. But it doesn’t stop there.

In 1980, when I was a kid, very few business or corporations had computers because they were expensive. To have one, someone had to hire a programmer and a staff to maintain the machine. That has changed in less than forty years. Due to Government, Military, Charitable and Private Funding, a whole infrastructure has now been developed to allow for the care and maintenance of those devices. In fact, most of us carry one of these devices on it. Or put differently, our “cell” phones in the last ten years have changed. They are now ostensibly little computers that can be used to write documents, answer phone calls, send emails, texts, tweets and a host of other functions.

But this is not remarkable. Since the dawn of modernity and the age of science, Western Civilization has been on a tear. During World War II, Germany, the US, Canada and the UK developed the first computers, aircraft carriers, rockets, jet engines and atomic bombs. While because of the Oil Crisis, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Peter Lougheed and Bill Davis bought 30% of a failing enterprise known as Syncrude, so that that Alberta based project could develop the technology required to exploit the Athabascan Oil Sands. All of these changes happened within a short time frame (i.e. 5- 20 years) and there is no evidence to suggest that the switch to renewable energy won’t be just as radical and as quick.

Right now, solar and wind development is slowly becoming competitive with fossil fuel substitutes. For example, India is moving away from coal and towards wind and solar energy sources (Modi’s Solar Embrace in India Leaves Wind Power in Shade by Anindya Upadhyay, Bloomberg.com, Updated on June 10, 2015 — 10:28 PM MDT). While in Australia, “the state of South Australia will no longer generate any power from coal, while more than 50% of power generated in the state will come from wind and solar, according to data from the Australian Energy Market Operator (excluding the interconnector from Victoria)” (SA coal killed by wind and solar, Origin CEO says AGL, should worry, by Tristan Edis, June 11, 2015, 2:23 PM).

Or look at Germany. They are continuing to invest in solar, wind and hydro-electricity production on the evidence that that production will become increasingly cheaper and “underpin its future as an economic powerhouse, and allow it to take on China in industrial production.” (Paths to renewable energy efficiency, by Sid Maher, The Australian.com, JUNE 24, 2015 12:00AM). Germany renewable production, at this point, is about 27.8% of their total electrical generation capacity. However, they have plans to increase this amount to 40-45 per cent by 2025 and to 80 per cent by 2050. This is in line with Denmark who presently gets about 28% of their power from Wind and has a target of getting 50% of power for their electrical system from wind by 2020. While, the Netherlands will be closing all of their coal plants by 2017 and move to having 16% of their electrical energy produced by wind by 2023. But it doesn’t end there because like much of Europe, the Netherlands aims to increase their economic performance “while reducing emissions by as much as 95 percent in 2050”. (Netherlands to Increase Offshore Wind Fourfold in Next Decade, by Sally Bakewell, Bloomber.com September 6, 2013 – 7:14 AM MDT)

With the advent of more electric cars in Europe one thing is clear, oil and natural gas production is not a growth industry. While, we will continue to use oil to make plastics, we will not be burning it any longer for heat or using it to move our cars, planes, buses and trains.  If that is the case, the question is simple: does the government of Alberta realize that this recent downturn is part of a trend? The world is moving off of fossil fuels and we need a plan. Just as Pierre Trudeau, Peter Lougheed and Bill Davis helped us to develop the Oils Sands Heritage, we need to have a diversification plan for our future.

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