Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away?

Ron Lamberty, senior vice president at the American Coalition for Ethanol, discusses a recent statement by Eddie O’Connor, CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power, that “Fossil fuels have lost. The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.”
By Ron Lamberty | July 24, 2017

“Fossil fuels have lost. The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.”

Some of you may have seen that quote earlier this summer, after it first appeared in an article in the Financial Times of London. It was a quote from Eddie O’Connor, CEO of Mainstream Renewable Power, a company headquartered in Ireland that describes itself as a global developer of “large-scale wind and solar power plants.”

One could brush off O’Connor’s statement as bluster and self-promotion by a person whose company benefits if the statement is proven true. Or, one could accept the fact that regardless of his motives, he’s probably right. A tad too optimistic, but ultimately right.

After all, whether it happens by 2025 or 2075, the very term used to describe O’Connor’s business and ours—“alternative energy” and “alternative fuels”—indicates technologies developed to use instead of the ones we already have. Entire industries don’t just sprout up unless there is great promise in the new technology, or great disgust with the old. Or both. There can be little doubt that when economics and availability of new energy sources equal those of current sources, the alternatives will win.

Ask the horse and buggy—if you can find one. It had a pretty sweet 5,000-year run, starting shortly after the invention of the wheel, and not being challenged until the development of the automobile in the late 1800s, and assembly-line production in the early 1900s. But they started to “lose” 200 years earlier, when the first steam engine was invented. They just didn’t know it yet. 

Eventually, steam engines gave way to larger, more powerful engines, leading to smaller versions classified by the horse power they replaced, when powering alternative carriages called automobiles. In only 30 years, horseless carriages disrupted five millennia of horse and carriage transportation domination.

Even efforts to portray automobiles as uncontrollable harbingers of death and destruction (probably funded by “Big Horse”) couldn’t stop the change. Apparently, a little property damage and human carnage was a small price to pay for replacement of transportation producing 45 pounds of road apples daily and requiring fuel even when it wasn’t used.

Horses lost, but carriages adapted to the new power source. Today, most car buyers are more concerned with the “carriage” part of the car than they are anything else—including the fuel. Which brings me back to the Financial Times article…

The piece begins with the story of an English company that created “a smarter version of a turbocharger” and had drawn interest from a dozen automakers. Early this year, according to the company’s owner, suddenly, “none wanted new products for cars running on fossil fuels.” He said carmakers told him “We think the shift to electric vehicles is accelerating,” and “We are going to put (our research and development money) into the electric car revolution.”

Given the ethanol industry’s recent investment in improved availability of higher-octane, higher-ethanol fuels for future turbocharged engines, that statement was chilling. When later news reports said Volvo would stop building cars with internal combustion engines in two years, I froze.

Fortunately, initial news reports were wrong (as initial news reports can be). Volvo actually said it won’t build cars with solely internal combustion engines. And maybe automakers are taking a pass on new turbocharge technology because ethanol octane also adds oxygen, making it unnecessary?

Whatever the case, and given excitement over renewables elsewhere, it calls into question those who would let flex fuels—our alternative fuels—just fade away, while promoting blends made mostly of fossil fuels. Ask retailers which blends they’d give up first. It won’t be flex fuel.

Author: Ron Lamberty
Senior Vice President
American Coalition for Ethanol