Fifty Years

Earlier this month, I turned 50 years old.  Such milestones are natural occasions for reflection.

Beyond recalling many of the phases and individual episodes of my life, my reflection included a consideration of how the world had changed in the 50 years in which I had lived.  And, naturally, given my profession, I pondered what it would have been like to have been a “cleantech” practicioner 50 years ago, in 1962.

Frankly, it’s not really possible to imagine “cleantech” back then.  50 years ago, there wasn’t much “clean” and there wasn’t much “tech”.

In the U.S., the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act hadn’t been passed, and there wasn’t even an Environmental Protection Agency.  Silicon Valley was still mainly apple orchards, and computers less powerful than your smartphone barely fit into large warehouses.

In the energy sector, the U.S. still dominated the petroleum industry.  Not only did Americans consume more petroleum than anyone else (accounting for about 40% of world demand), U.S. oil production was still a major factor, representing almost 30% of worldwide production.

The oil industry’s operations would still have been very recognizable by John D. Rockefeller:  production was mainly from “conventional” onshore seesaw pumpers dotting the countryside; remote locations such as Alaska hadn’t yet been touched, nor had any material production yet been achieved from offshore wells.

Other than perhaps by watching the recently-released “Lawrence of Arabia”, few Americans paid much attention to the deserts of the Middle East in 1962.

Though unnoticed by most Americans, important forces in the oil industry were already beginning to shift in the early 1960s.  Although Texas oil production had been decisive in fueling the Allied victory in World War II just two decades previously, by 1962, the U.S. had become a net importer of oil.  Yet, only King Hubbert projected a future waning of American supremacy in oil production.

Oil prices in 1962 were a little less than $3/barrel, largely due to the price-setting powers of the Railroad Commission (RRC) of Texas, then still the source of a significant share of world oil production.  When a hitherto little-noticed group formed in the early 1960s called the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) assumed the dominant influence in pricing oil a decade later, the world would change forever, as oil prices would never again be anywhere near below $10/barrel.

It’s almost quaint to summon up memories of the oil sector of the era.  Remember what filling up at a gas station was like in the 1960s?  The attendant would come out, put the nozzle in the tank (always with the filler behind the rear license plate), cheerfully wipe the windshield and ask “may I check your oil?”.  Looking out the window, I remember seeing “29.9” on the gas pumps.  That’s 29.9 cents per gallon — which seems almost surreal to us now, but remember, oil prices were then only a few percent of what they are today.

Of course, given the now-unbelievably appalling gas mileage of those Detroit beasts, usually under 10 miles per gallon, you still had to fill up about as often then as you do now.  Back then, it was all about horsepower — it certainly wasn’t about efficiency, nor about cleanliness.  (Nor, for that matter, reliability.)

Every once in awhile these days, I find myself behind a 1960s-vintage car at a stoplight, most often on a sunny summer afternoon.  When the light turns green, I am left in a thin cloud of light bluish smoke and the fragrance of octane and unburned hydrocarbons.  Odors of my youth.  You don’t see and smell that anymore — and I don’t miss it.

Thank goodness for a plethora of cleantech innovation during the past decades:  unleaded fuels, pollution controls and fuel injection systems.

And, let’s not forget that these advances were pushed by, only happened because of, foresightful proactive policies.

While the financial bonanzas and corporate/family dramas enabled by oil discoveries and production had thoroughly captured the American imagination by the early 1960s — consider everything from “Giant” to “The Beverly Hillbillies” — natural gas in 1962 was an afterthought.  Other than some use for power generation in Texas and Oklahoma (where there was no local coal resource), natural gas was mostly flared at the wellhead.  In many ways because (and many people now forget this) natural gas prices were then regulated at depressed levels, the companies that produced gas as a side-consequence from oil production didn’t see much value in making the investments necessary to collect it and transport it to markets.  In fact, natural gas was widely considered a nuisance in 1962.

Certainly, gas is no longer considered a nuisance.  In fact, it’s now being touted by politicians across the U.S. as the Godsend:  providing lower energy prices, lower emissions, higher domestic employment and reduced dependence on foreign energy sources.

No, the oil/gas industry — and those two fuels are today inextricably intertwined — is now much more aggressive in capturing and processing every Btu that courses through the markets.

In the late 1960s, our family lived in the Philadelphia area, and I remember being awed – almost scared, really – by the immense flames emitted by the refinery near the mouth of the Schuylkill River.  All those now-valuable hydrocarbons…gone, wasted, up in smoke.  You don’t see that anymore at refineries, thankfully.

Oil company practices have massively changed in the past 50 years to capture everything of possible economic value.  Of course, that’s the effect of a 30x increase in oil prices, driven by a worldwide search and race to find and produce new reserves to replace five decades’ worth of depletion of much of the cheap/easy stuff in the face of a tripling of global oil demand (mostly from outside the U.S.), counterbalanced by technological progress on a host of fronts over the span of five decades.

Today, oil is pretty consistently trading between $80-100/barrel, and while U.S. oil production has rebounded a bit to approach early 1960s levels, American production now accounts for less than 10% of world oil production.

But think about how low U.S. oil production would be and how high oil prices might be today if not for offshore oil production, directional drilling, 3-D seismic, and an untold number of other innovations produced by the oil patch in the last half-century to enable production from hitherto undeveloped places.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and not all of these developments are viewed positively by everyone.  The current debates about fracking and development of the Alberta oil sands would have been unimaginable in 1962.  At the time, fracking barely existed as a practice, and the Alberta oil sands were then hopelessly uneconomic as a source of fuels.  Moreover, there was virtually no environmental movement to give voice to the concerns of citizens.

It wasn’t really until Rachel Carson published Silent Spring just a few weeks after I was born that much attention was paid to pollution.  Later in the decade and into the 1970s came the grassroots emergence of the environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If you are about my age or older, you may well remember this 1971 commercial.  The tagline (“People start pollution, people can stop it”) and the image of the Native American shedding a tear remain indelible decades later.

Before this, there was virtually no accountability placed on emitters, and anyone could pretty much dump whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  And, in the early 1960s, no set of interests benefitted from ongoing inattention to environmental considerations in the U.S. more than the coal sector.  For those with coal interests, the times before environmentalists were truly the glory days — and in 1962, the future for coal in the U.S. at that time was terrifically bright.

Sure, trains had just moved from coal steam to diesel-electric, but over half of all the electricity generated in the U.S. in 1962 was based on burning coal.  With burgeoning demand for electricity (especially to keep pace with the exploding utilization of increasingly-ubiquitous air conditioning), coal was poised for significant growth, as thousands of megawatts of new coal powerplants would be added to the nation’s energy grid each year during the 1960s.

While coal is certainly no poster-child for the cleantech sector today, back in 1962, coal remained a particularly brutish and nasty form of energy.  288 American miners were killed on the job in 1962, and all of the coal burned was subject to minimal pollution control – no electrostatic precipitators or baghouses to capture particulates (i.e., soot), much less scrubbers for sulfur dioxide or selective catalytic reduction for nitrogen oxide emissions.  You pretty much didn’t want to be a coal miner or live anywhere near a coal-burning powerplant, as your health and longevity were seriously at risk.

Indeed, some observers speculate that the uncontrolled emissions from powerplants (not to mention other industrial facilities, such as steel mills) threw up such large amounts of material into the atmosphere that the 1970s became a period of unusually cold temperatures — to the point that many scientists were projecting a future of damaging global cooling.  (Although the then-common theory of global cooling is now mainly forgotten, climate change deniers are quick to employ this prior dead-end of thought as one reason for dismissing the strong likelihood suggested by climate scientists that global warming is probably occurring today.)

Of course, the U.S. still mines coal, lots of it, to fuel lots of coal-fired powerplants.  Production in 2011 was 1.1 billion tons, more than double 1962 levels.  However, employment in the coal industry had fallen by over 40% during the same period.  (And, mercifully, annual fatalities have decreased by a factor of 10.)  The primary factors for these changes:  productivity increases due to new technologies (e.g., longwall mining), lower rates of unionization, and a shift from underground to surface mining (now accounting for nearly 70% of U.S. production).

With respect to the latter factor, Wyoming coal activity has exploded — now representing more than 40% of U.S. production — at the expense of Appalachia, whose coal sector is now but a shell of what it was 50 years ago.  The causes are simple:  the subbituminous Powder River stuff from Wyoming is much more abundant and cheaper to mine, and generally has much lower sulfur content to boot, than what is available from Appalachia.

On a broader level, coal is on the retreat in the U.S.:  while coal still accounts for almost 50% of power generation, this share is dwindling.  It seems as though U.S. coal production levels have plateaued at just over 1 billion tons a year.  While so-called “clean-coal” technologies may at some point provide the basis for a resurgence in the industry, the possibility of future growth certainly seems far from obvious today.

Many legacy coal powerplants – some of which remain in operation from well more than 50 years ago – are fading away.  Tightening emission requirements, particularly on toxic emissions such as mercury, are just one  competitive disadvantage facing coal; coal power is increasingly uncompetitive with cheap and cleaner natural gas powerplants and (in some places) wind and solar energy.

“Wind energy” and “solar energy”:  50 years ago, these would have been oxymorons.  Other than the minute niches of sailboats and waterwell pumping in the Great Plains, a good wind resource had virtually no commercial value in 1962.  At the same time, Bell Labs scientists were wrangling some with solar energy technologies — primarily for satellites – although a lot more attention was being paid to a related device called the semiconductor.

For energy, scientists were mainly working on nuclear power, moving from weapons and Navy submarines to powerplants.  The nuclear era was dawning:  electricity was going to be “too cheap to meter”.

The very first commercial nuclear powerplant, the relatively puny 60 megawatt plant at Shippingport in Western Pennsylvania, had been running for only a few years in 1962, though dozens of nuclear powerplants were just coming onto the drawing boards.  Visionaries were even talking about nuclear-powered automobiles in 1962.  (“Electric vehicles?  Puh-lease.  Batteries are for cheap portable Japanese radios.”)

Perhaps as a psychological defense mechanism to drown out the anxieties associated with potential Armeggedon from a Cold War missile exchange, such was the sense of optimism in the possibilities of the age.

Apparently, no-one could foresee Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima at the time.

The future held boundless possibilities.  Back then, who needed to recycle?  To think about efficient utilization of resources?  To care about water quality or air quality?  There was always more and better, somewhere, to be had.  And we Americans would surely obtain it, somehow and someway.  It was Manifest Destiny, ever-onward.

This American philosophy may have confronted its limits early in my lifetime with the ultimate realization, brought home so vividly at the end of the 1960s by the first-ever images of the solitary Earth as provided by the Apollo program, that we’re all utterly dependent upon a finite planet in an infinite sea of otherwise-unpopulable space.  Earth Day followed in April 1970.

To commemorate this first Earth Day, I remember our second-grade class picking up scads of litter along the side of a section of highway.  Upon reflection, I am glad to note how much litter has declined in subsequent years — a case of how values can be reshaped and behaviors can be changed, if people are just a bit more conscious.

That’s a positive take.  However, one can reasonably look back on 50 years of the evolution of the energy sector and say, well, that not that much has really changed in America.

True, the basic structure of American life may not have changed too dramatically.

We still primarily live in single family dwellings, in suburbia, dependent upon cars that look more or less the same, fueled by gasoline available at stations just down the road.  The power grid is still there, powered by central-station powerplants; the light switches and outlets haven’t changed, with refrigerators still in every kitchen and TVs in every living space.

By all measures, Americans are still energy hogs, relative to the rest of the world.

Even so, I would assert that a lot has changed, at both the macro and micro-level, that have consequentially altered the trajectory of resource utilization in America from the path determinedly being travelled 50 years ago.

Admittedly, some of the changes we have experienced are a bummer:  niceties like summer evenings with the windows open are much rarer.  Nevertheless, I claim that most of the changes of the past half-century are positive – and can be attributed to a significant degree to what we now call “cleantech”.

Our energy bounty, improved so significantly by technological innovation, has been achieved while simultaneously improving environmental conditions in almost every respect.  Notwithstanding the substantial increase in carbon dioxide emissions, almost all other manifestations of environmental impact from energy production and use have dramatically improved in the past half-century.  Standards of living enabled by modern energy use, here in America and even more so in the rest of the world, have dramatically improved.

Moreover, the trends for further future improvement on all these fronts are favorable.

With the proliferation of improved technologies such as LED lighting, energy efficiency continues to advance.  Renewable energy continues to gain share:  wind and solar energy represented about a quarter of new U.S. electricity generation additions in 2010.  Citizen understanding of energy and environmental issues continues to become more sophisticated.

Beyond the forces specifically pertaining to the energy sector, a number of broader influences in U.S. society are improving the prospects for accelerating cleantech innovation and adoption.  Entrepreneurship is booming, consumerism is increasingly being called into question, capital markets are more amenable to investment in this sector and more capital is arriving accordingly, and the Internet makes an immense and ever-expanding pool of information freely available to enable better decisions.

Not to mention:  much of the opposition to a transition to the cleantech future emanates from people in generations that are older, that will die out in the next couple of decades, to be replaced by younger generations that are generally more supportive of increased cleantech activity.

So, while it’s easy to get discouraged by the impediments to cleantech progress on a day-to-day basis, over the long-view, it’s pretty apparent that big positive things can happen and in fact are happening.

50 years from now, in 2062, I hope to be alive and well at 100 and still contributing to the cleantech sector.  That may be overoptimistic.  But I don’t think it’s at all overoptimistic that we’ll see more changes, and more changes for the better, in the cleantech realm over the next 50 years than in the previous 50.