Fuels of the Future

Mar 11, 2019

Speaking at CERA Week in Houston, Maarten Wetselaar, Shell Integrated Gas & New Energies Director, argues that the future of transport fuels will show a new and evolving balance between different fuels, traditional and new, depending on customers’ needs and local availability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Anthony Lucas struck oil in Spindletop, around 80 miles from here, in 1901. Oil erupted from the earth at a rate of 100,000 barrels a day for nine days straight. This was a big moment for Texas … a big moment for the USA… and a big moment for transport, as Dan [Yergin] has shown in his book The Prize. Because the oil drilling frenzy that followed went on to dramatically boost worldwide oil production and kick off a rivalry between transport fuels.

I think we all know which fuel won. Oil had many advantages compared to other fuels. Internal combustion engines started much faster than steam engines… they did not require a guy constantly shoveling coal in a furnace… and unlike a horse, an internal combustion engine could not run away or drop dead from an infection. The only limiting factors for gasoline were the price, that quickly went down… and the production capacity, that quickly went up. In 1901, when Anthony Lucas struck oil, there were around 4000 horse carriage builders in the US. By the end of the 1920s, only 90 were left. From planes to trains, barges to battleships and from MINI Cooper to monster trucks… every form of motorized transport eventually ran on oil.

Today, transport needs to change again… transport needs to radically reduce emissions to limit global warming and improve the quality of the air we breathe. Some say batteries will triumph this time. According to the International Energy Agency – or IEA – the total number of battery electric cars in the world will increase from about 3 million today to 280 million in 2040. This sounds like another Spindletop moment for transport… a moment of sudden change… but it is not. Because the IEA expects the total number of cars to grow to 2 billion by 2040.

The challenge for electric battery cars is that they are not yet as user-friendly as cars with an internal combustion engine. This is likely to change in the future, but for now, they take longer to charge, cannot drive as far and are more expensive. And that is just passenger cars. This does not even include trucks, let alone ships and airplanes. None of those can be easily electrified yet. The world needs many different energy solutions if it wants to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That is as true for transport as it is for other sectors.

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