Paradigm-shift theory applied to energy for transport
Technology differs from science in its core purpose. The purpose of technology is to make things we understand work; that of science is to discover how things we don’t understand work. In mathematical terminology, science searches for the founding theorem, while technology pursues its many corollaries. Science is constrained by the faith it has placed in, or the frantic search for, a unifying paradigm; technology has, in principle, more freedom to apply science in many different ways.
However, in practice science and technology tend to operate a lot closer to each other.
As mentioned in the previous post, science’s faith in a unifying paradigm eventually crumbles, making it necessary for a new paradigm to emerge, such that the founding theorem turns out to be one amongst others. Technology, conversely, doesn’t typically make as much use of its freedom as we might expect. Be it through economies of scale, globalization or the disproportionate effect of competitive advantage, some technologies have a sweeping effect. To take conspicuous examples, the telegraph was swept over by the telephone, which itself is about to be swept over by mobile technologies, and horses as a primary mean of transport have been replaced by motorised transportation. Just like Newton’s physics haven’t been binned with the advent of Einstein’s, an old technology does not always disappear entirely: it may linger on for a while (I still remember my parents receiving bad news by telegram from my grand-parents who did not have a phone line) or it may found a new niche (think of horse transport now being a tourist value proposition in historic city centres such as Vienna).
All this to say that, though different in nature, science and technology tend to operate on the basis of a dominant paradigm at a given point in time, and both have to face the turmoil of paradigm shift from time to time.
Today, more than 90% of transport is oil-enabled. Whether heavy fuel oil for ships, diesel for trucks, gasoline for cars, or kerosene for jets, products refined from crude oil have dominated the transport landscape for the last 70 years, the only notable exception being railways that, in some parts of the world, have been largely electrified. Crude oil transformed in refineries for use in transport has been – and still is – a technology paradigm. But as a paradigm, it is giving signs of being seriously challenged.
Just like in science the community of scientists eventually come to realize that the paradigm that has served them so well is never going to explain a range of phenomenons that can no longer be ignored, the technology community realizes that refined crude oil for transport is no longer tenable as an all-encompassing paradigm, due to a range of phenomenons that can no longer be ignored:
– The expected doubling of the energy demand in the next couple of decades, as the world population continues to grow and standards of living rise in emerging economies;
– The increasing difficulty to access traditional crude oil resources;
– The imperative to address the emission challenge.
To continue with the analogy, just like a scientific revolution first sees the emergence of different competing options to replace the old paradigm, we see today the emergence and in-depth exploration of a portfolio of options that – to various degrees – break away from the dominant crude oil / refinery / transport paradigm:
– Biofuels and Gas-To-Liquid solutions (as well as more local solutions such as methanol in some Chinese provinces) get away from crude oil and enable the distribution infrastructure and vehicle fleet to remain largely unchanged,
– The direct use of gas as transport fuel removes the need for refining, but requires the existing distribution infrastructures and engine technologies to be adapted,
– Electrification provides the flexibility to apply any primary source of energy, whether fossil or renewable, to transport through the same application technology, but it requires the biggest change of distribution infrastructure and motorization.
There is therefore little doubt that we are reaching the end of the dominance era of the refined crude for transport paradigm. Going forward, in typical paradigm-shift fashion, we will see a multiplicity of solutions influenced by local resources, people’s aspirations, and government infrastructure choices. Like Newton’s physics continue to be used quite heavily, refined crude will remain a major component of the transport energy mix, but others will take an increasingly large share of that mix. The questions are:
– How long is the shift going to take?
– Will eventually a new unifying paradigm emerge or are we durably heading into a world of multiple solutions?
In the absence of an accurate crystal ball, here are a few observations in way of answers:
– 50 years from now, the primary energy mix (overall, not just for transport) will still be heavy on fossil hydrocarbons. At the risk of oversimplifying, I can see a credible scenario with 20% oil, 20% gas, 20% coal, 20% solar, 20% others (incl. nuclear, wind, biofuels, etc.)
– Transportation consumes 25% of the world energy production. Given the mix above, it seems inevitable that oil and gas continue to play a significant role as a primary energy source for transport.
– We could theoretically envisage a scenario where, at least for road and rail, all sources of primary energy are converted to electricity to power a fleet of vehicles that is 100% electric. However, in practice, fueling vehicles with gas (as opposed to converting gas to electricity and powering cars with the latter) is likely to remain a more cost-efficient approach, both in terms of cost of infrastructure and running costs. Therefore, the all electric scenario seems to me unlikely unless we see the same sort of technology breakthrough and exponential miniaturization and cost reduction as we have seen in microchips over the past three decades.
– More controversially, I would see the seemingly unstoppable growth in the transport sector coming to an end. As the world grapples with resource scarcity and the need to curb emissions, efficiency is going to be absolutely key. And any LEAN Supply Chain practitioner will tell you that one of the levers of efficiency is to reduce/eliminate the movement of goods. Going forward, societal trends such as the return to locally grown food, combined with technology trends such as 3D printing, could re-localize / de-globalize some parts of the transport sector. As a result, the current multiplication of energy/motorization solutions for transport could become not just a paradigm-shift transitional phase, but the new paradigm.