Before Oil, there was Whale Oil
For three weeks this summer, a group of six to seven whales fed and played so close to the shores of Half Moon Bay in California, that surfers and paddle boarders could swim alongside them. One of the spectators was actually capsized (no harm was done) when a whale came up for a breath of air right under her board (she had her GoPro on—check the video here). These majestic animals then left, completely undisturbed, to continue their annual southbound migration before winter.
Courtesy of San Francisco entrepreneur and photographer Christopher Michel.
Any futurist living at the dawn of the twentieth century would have predicted that swimming with a group of whales in 2016 would be an improbability: whales would be extinct by then. They would be gone because we would have hunted them to extinction, which was an easy trend to see a hundred years ago. Back then, and for hundreds of years that preceded, whales were energy. Entire cities were lighted with oil that came from whales. They were easy to hunt, and nobody thought twice about the “conservation” of such a valuable resource for society. However, fate sometimes holds interesting ironies for the world: whales were saved by dinosaurs.
Hydrocarbons: Too Much of a Good Thing
Hydrocarbons are so energetic because they are made of the water and carbon of the fauna and flora that existed millions of years ago. Scottish chemist James Young was the first person to distil a light thin oil out of petroleum suitable for use as lamp oil in Scotland. In 1848, he set up a small business for refining the crude oil (as his method later came to be called). Then in 1859, Edwin Drake built the first modern oil well near Titusville, Pennsylvania to meet the growing demand for using oil for lighting in the United States.
The technology to extract and distribute oil made it cost-competitive to other fuels (such as whale oil) quite quickly, and so it ended up replacing them. Entire whaling villages soon went out of business and were abandoned. In the decades that followed, whales were able to make a recovery although a few countries still hunt them (see the list here)—not for their oil, but for their meat.
Without a doubt, hydrocarbons were one of the key drivers for the unprecedented growth and progress we witnessed during the twentieth century. They were plentiful, easy to extract and distribute, and they were quite versatile. From gasoline to plastics, hydrocarbons seemed like a blessing. For much of the twentieth century, these fuels were relatively easy to source and to take to market. This abundance and availability made them so cheap that at one point, the industry successfully created ways to limit the supply of oil worldwide.
Economics to the Rescue
However, hydrocarbons came fully burdened with costs that slowly accumulated—to the point where their unabated use has the potential of driving another species to extinction: us.
Thankfully, just as the externalities of hydrocarbons have risen to the point where they are changing the climate of the entire planet, the cost of alternative fuels keeps coming down. Sustained technological progress in wind and solar now makes them cost-competitive to hydrocarbons. According to recent data from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the costs of renewable power generation are already lower on average worldwide than those of fossil fuels. It is now common to see homes, schools, and businesses around the world outfitted with solar panels. Wind turbines proliferate in Europe and North America and help to manage peaks for the electricity grid of many cities.
The past four decades have also seen steady progress in hydrogen technology. The most abundant and energetic of all the elements in the universe is progressively powering more and more applications every day, such as cars, forklifts in industrial warehouses, and entire corporate offices (including the Google campus just a few miles south of where the visiting whales chose to spend their summer). Together, the cost-competitiveness and growing availability of these alternative fuels are making it possible to de-carbonize our society and move toward a sustainable future. International climate agreements such as the Paris Agreement would not be possible to commit to if these technologies did not provide a viable answer. According to the United Nations, ratification trends by the signing nations is on track to make it fully implemented before the end of this year.
Accelerating the Sustainability Pace with Hydrogen 2.0
If the rise in the use of oil had been steady but slow, perhaps whales would not be here today. A certain level of critical speed for the adoption of oil to power homes made it quite clear that whale oil had no future. This allowed whales to recover before it was too late. Climate change may require a similar level of critical speed in the adoption of fuel alternatives. For example, cities, which account for up to 75% of the world’s carbon emissions, have an international mandate to speed up de-carbonization. Wind and solar are helping to answer that call but have some inherent drawbacks, such as their lack of 24/7 availability.
Hydrogen 2.0 has the potential of providing a no-compromise alternative to sustainable growth, alongside other renewables. At Joi Scientific, we are working to make Hydrogen 2.0 the world’s most efficient extraction technology that can produce hydrogen gas from seawater 24/7—so that whales, alongside every other species on our planet, can have a thriving future.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.