fr | en
Excited about clean technologies?
20/05 - 2016

Excited about clean technologies?

It so happens that we landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma last week, which used to be known as the “oil capital of the world”. So I thought it would be interesting to visit the Phillips Petroleum Company (now know as ConocoPhillips) museum in Bartlesville, just North of Tulsa. It was launched by the Phillips brothers, L.E. and Frank, who built the first “natural gasoline” plant near Bartlesville in 1917, and from there, their industry grew. In 1926, an Aviation department was created to highlight the company’s growing role in air travel. Indeed, they started producing airplane fuel before car fuel, thus playing a role in several aviation milestones.

In 1927, Arthur Goebel Jr flew a monoplane from Bartlesville to Hawaii in the dangerous Dole air race over the Pacific. This competition was born four days after Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in May 1927. Goebel was competing against eight airplanes taking off in Oakland, California, and used high-octane aviation fuel developed by Phillips Petroleum. Only two aircrafts made it to the arrival and Goebel’s monoplane, the Woolaroc (named after Frank Phillips’ ranch near Bartlesville), won the race after 27 hours 17 minutes and 33 seconds of flight.

In 1934, the two brothers brought financial support to Wiley Post to explore the limits of high-altitude long-distance flight. Wiley Post had just won the title of first man to fly solo around the world in his Lockheed Vega “Winnie Mae” in 1933. With the Phillips’ support, he made several attempts in a non-pressurized cabin, using the world’s first pressure suit, and ultimately reached 55,000 ft above Bartlesville. In 1931, Auguste Piccard, my grandfather, had reached an altitude of 51,775 ft and in 1932, 53,153 ft with the pressurized capsule he had invented.

image

What struck me in this museum was the enthusiasm that everyone showed for oil at the beginning of the previous century. Every manager and employee had the feeling of contributing to the wellbeing of society. And they actually did. If you think about it, our entire civilization comes directly from the discovery of oil. This magical product allowed a development that was unprecedented in history, in terms of mobility and quality of life. But what was a miracle at a time when the population was small, doesn’t work anymore in a world of 7 billion people. Its side effects - CO2, air pollution, natural resources depletion - are forcing us to find other solutions.

Oil is nevertheless very difficult to replace, especially in our minds. How can we reproduce the same popular enthusiasm for clean technologies than for oil? While the discovery of oil created such excitement back in the days, it’s complicated to spark true enthusiasm around clean technologies. It’s also hard to change our habits and give up using oil, when looking at all the great things it brought our society and how it made life easier. Modern technologies will make the world cleaner and safer, but they will not bring a revolution in our lifestyle as big as oil did in the 1930s. If you compare the 1900s and 1930s, the improvement was drastic. If we fast forward to 2050, clean technologies and renewable energy resources will definitely solve the environmental issues, but the difference in quality of life from today probably won’t be that substantial.

image

This is why we have to introduce the notion of profitability around clean technologies. They represent a new market for today and tomorrow as the world needs to replace outdated and inefficient energy systems like combustion engines, badly insulated houses and old electrical grids by new efficient technologies. And I do hope oil companies will participate in this diversification. Total, who owns 66% of SunPower, the company which built Solar Impulse’s solar cells, is a great example of such a diversification. I also hope this transition will be smooth, and that existing oil companies will seize the opportunity and participate in the change, instead of resisting and fighting it. We should do everything we can to avoid a war between the promoters of old and new sources of energy. It’s obvious that clean energies will win. But if the revolution profits only the newcomers, collateral damage in terms of bankruptcy and unemployment in the oil business will be enormous. It has always been clear in history that the ones who survive natural selection are not the strongest but the most flexible to adaptation. After allowing such a giant leap in our society during the 1930s, oil companies shouldn’t hesitate to make a second leap into the clean future and harvest its benefits.

^