Sunday, January 23, 2011

Guest Post: Neil Fairhead and Turn Signals

From among all the sound and fury of the present day, history can sometimes help us to identify key moments and actions that demonstrate how the direction of the world is truly changing. I refer to these moments as “Turn Signals”. In the history of energy over the last several centuries, three such signals stand out and I believe a fourth has just occurred. All have one thing in common: they are associated with the leading naval force of their era.

HMS Victory (Source:
During the 18th century, the British Royal Navy was almost in a continuous state of conflict and was pushed to build more and bigger ships. These ships needed timber, in enormous amounts. HMS Victory alone required six thousand trees, the vast majority being mature oak. They needed iron as well, for anchors, pulleys, chains, nails, barrel hoops and not least for their guns, but iron needed charcoal further requiring the use of trees. Turn Signal 1 was the deforestation of England. This drove up the cost of charcoal, limited iron production in England and led to a strategic dependence on imports, which was highlighted when war cut supplies. Ironmakers began to find ways of using another available fuel source - coal and its product coke. The fossil fuel era began - symbolized by the construction of the first iron bridge in the summer of 1779. It crossed over the Severn River near the aptly named Coalbrookdale, where the iron had been made using coal. Is it a coincidence that HMS Victory was launched just fourteen years earlier in 1765?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the British Royal Navy was still the leading military force when it took the decision to convert its fuel source from coal to oil for its latest battleships. Turn Signal 2 came when Winston Churchill, the civilian head of the Navy, ensured the purchase of a controlling interest in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1913. The Age of Oil had begun.

By the middle of the century the mantle of the leading military force had passed to the USA whose Navy needed global capabilities. Turn Signal 3 came on August 3, 1958 when USS Nautilus, en route from Hawaii to Europe, passed over the North Pole while submerged under the ice. Powered by a single reactor this trip heralded the arrival of nuclear fission as a viable power source.

So what? Why care about these events? Because the military is in the risk business. Because failure costs them dearly so change is done very carefully and only when really necessary. Because they have the resources and the skills to change the game.

Photo: U.S. Navy, Public domain.
And because on Monday, December 13, 2010, Chris Tindal (Director of Operational Energy, U.S. Navy) called for the provision to the US Navy of 336 million gallons of drop-in advanced biofuels annually by 2020. “By 2020, our target is fifty percent of energy from alternative sources, and we have a mandate to reduce petroleum use 50 percent by 2015.” He also noted that these fuels have already been tested in river boats and at Mach 1.2 in an F18 fighter dubbed, of course, the “Green Hornet”. Turn Signal 4 just flashed on before our eyes.

After a year in which doubt and despondency about the need for alternative sources of energy had appeared to creep into the climate change debate perhaps the signal to noise ratio is improving after all.

After studying Chemical Engineering, Neil enjoyed a variety of experiences, working in 4 countries on 3 continents including computing, marketing and environmental activities for both private and public organizations. A lover of history, Neil remains convinced of the truth of Winston Churchill's comment "the further back you look the further forward you can see". To learn more about Neil, you can visit his LinkedIn profile:

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