“The age of centralized, command-and-control, extraction-resource-based energy sources (oil, gas, coal and nuclear) will not end because we run out of petroleum, natural gas, coal or uranium. It will end because these energy sources, the business models they employ, and the products that sustain them will be disrupted by superior technologies, product architectures, and business models. Compelling new technologies such as solar, wind, electric vehicles, and autonomous (self-driving) cars will disrupt and sweep away the energy industry as we know it.”
-Tony Seba, Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation
The major electoral defeat of Trump’s Republican Party in November, followed one week later by nonviolent direct action in Nancy Pelosi’s office by the youth climate organization, Sunrise, on top of 2018’s extreme weather events and the sobering IPCC and National Climate Assessment reports, have catapulted the climate issue to the top of the list of issues of most concern in the country and in Congress. This is a very good thing.
During the 15 years that I have prioritized the climate crisis as my major focus of work, I have often felt, and believed, that the odds were very long that we can avoid full-on societal meltdown because of the depth and seriousness of both the climate crisis and the broader environmental crisis. To see thousands and thousands of young people, Sunrise young people and Youth Climate Strike young people, giving active leadership in the streets and halls of government is very hopeful. Successful revolutions have always been powered to a significant degree by the energy and passion of the uncorrupted young.
But I have to say that for me personally, an equally hopeful development so far in 2019 when it comes to our dire, worldwide human condition has been to be exposed to the thinking, speaking and writing of Tony Seba.
Who is Tony Seba? That’s exactly what I would have said about a month ago, before a friend sent a video to an email list I’m on of a 71-minute presentation he made last summer to a conference in Colorado. Inspired by that speech, I got his book: “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation: How Silicon Valley Will Make Oil, Nuclear, Natural Gas, Coal, Electric Utilities and Conventional Cars Obsolete by 2030.”
Seba’s book bio provides this info about him: He holds a BS in Computer Science and Engineering from MIT and an MBA from Stanford. He is currently a lecturer in entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy at Stanford University. He is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and executive with more than 20 years of experience in disruptive, fast-growth technology businesses, including Cisco Systems, RSA Data Security and PrintNation.com. He is a recognized thought leader and keynote speaker in entrepreneurship, disruption and the future of energy and transportation. His speaking clients include Google, the California League of Cities and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Honestly, these credentials wouldn’t ordinarily impress me, given that I’m a community organizer and revolutionary who sees our corporate-dominated economic system as very much a huge problem that needs to be radically transformed. However, 10 minutes into watching that 71 minute video, I was hooked, and very impressed. Here’s why:
-Seba believes that, primarily based on what is happening within the energy and transportation business sectors, a renewable energy revolution is likely to be made by 2030. It’s not that fossil fuels and gas-powered cars will be a thing of the past; they’ll still be around, but they will be in human society’s rearview mirror, seen as old, dirty, expensive technologies that we are consciously moving on from.
-He believes this based upon his study of and knowledge about how, in the past, other new, disruptive technologies have rapidly displaced older technologies much more rapidly than “conventional wisdom” would predict. Examples include horse-drawn vehicles replaced by cars at the beginning of the 20th century; Kodak and Fujifilm being put out of business with the rise of picture-taking phones and digital technology; landline phones being overwhelmed by the rise of smart phones; and laptop and tablet computers replacing stationary and bulkier computers.
“What happened in photography and what is happening in many other industries is what I call ‘waves of disruption’ or ‘disruptive waves.’ These waves used to happen every century or maybe every generation. The computer industry sped up disruption waves so they occur every decade or so.” (p 9)
-He lists all of the various new technologies which, together, will bring about a renewable energy revolution over the next decade: solar and wind technologies, electric vehicles, autonomous cars, electric energy storage devices, robotics, intelligent devices, sensors, artificial intelligence, mobile Internet, big data, satellites, nanotechnology and other exponentially improving technologies. It comes across as kind-of a perfect storm of economic development that is going to sweep away the polluting bad guys just in time.
-These fundamental changes—he calls it “the clean disruption”—will be about “abundant, cheap and participatory energy. The clean disruption is similar to the information technology revolution that overturned the old publishing and information model and made information abundant, participatory and essentially free.” (p. 3)
-“The clean disruption of energy and transportation is inevitable when you consider the exponential cost improvement of disrupting technologies; the creation of new business models; the democratization of generation, finance and access; and the exponential market growth.” (p. 3)
-“It will be over by 2030. Maybe before.” (p. 3)
At one point he lays out what he calls a “virtuous circle of market adoption” of solar energy that is already beginning to happen:
–Capital availability increases and cost of capital decreases.
–Local, distributed energy generation increases.
–The architecture of energy flips from centralized to distributed.
–Enabling technologies such as sensors, artificial intelligence, big data and mobile communications improve exponentially.
–The cost of resource-based energy increases.
–Complementary markets such as wind, electric vehicles, and self-driving cars increase exponentially.
–Investments increase in other storage technologies shared by solar, wind, electric vehicles, and self-driving cars.
–The architecture of energy becomes more and more distributed.
–The conventional command-and-control energy business model enters a vicious cycle of rising prices and stranded assets. (p. 38)
There is much more of value in this 231 page book. This listing of the 11 chapters gives a fuller picture:
-Energy and the Stone Age
-The Solar Disruption
-Finance and the Disruption of Energy
-Electricity 2.0 – Distributed, Participatory Energy and the Disruption of Power Utilities
-The Electric Vehicle Disruption
-The Autonomous (Self-Driving) Car Disruption
-The End of Nuclear
-The End of Oil
-Natural Gas – A Bridge to Nowhere
-The End of Biofuels
-The End of Coal
As hopeful as this book is, it would be a very big mistake for the climate and climate justice and progressive movements to let up in our demands for a Green New Deal, for keeping fossil fuels in the ground, for no new fossil fuel infrastructure, for disinvestment by banks and insurance companies, for state and federal electricity regulations which provide, at a minimum, a level playing field for all energy sources.
Indeed, in Seba’s book he identifies state regulatory agency decisions as an important component in how fast the transition can happen. As public utility and energy analyst Nancy LaPlaca has pointed out often, in many states the agencies which regulate energy are controlled by coal and other fossil fuel interests. Because of this reality, regulations often make it more expensive, more time-consuming and more difficult for solar energy to be adopted by consumers.
On a federal level in 2017 we saw something similar. Trump and his Department of Energy told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, that they should change their rules to bail out the struggling coal and nukes industries. Surprisingly, all five commissioners ended up voting against this. Unsurprisingly, when a vacancy opened up a year later, Trump nominated someone to fill that vacancy, Bernard McNamee, who had been a primary public advocate for the DOE of that bail-out scheme.
Clearly, state and federal governments need to be continuously pressured to do the right thing, to counter the continuous pressure and campaign contributions they get from the fossil fuelers and their corporate allies.
The other big issue that Seba doesn’t address is the issue of equity and justice in this transition. That is where the Green New Deal concept comes in.
We need to tie a shift to this new clean energy economy, on the one hand, with affirmative legislation to benefit both low-income and people of color communities who have been most impacted by an unjust and polluting fossil fuel economy, as well as those employed in the fossil fuel industry or ancillary industries who will experience job loss and economic downsizing. We need a just transition. Doing so will not only be the right thing to do; it will also make it harder for our enemies to turn potential working-class allies against us.
Finally, and no small thing, the sooner the transition happens, the less human, economic and environmental damage there will be around the world. We’re already facing a lot of it, no matter how fast things change, for many years to come. We have a responsibility as conscious human beings to move the revolution forward as rapidly as we can.
Ted Glick has been a progressive activist, organizer and writer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jtglick.