What’s Old is New again… (or, an Historical Perspective on Energy Technology)

old wellsFans of the 1985 movie “Back to the Future” will recognize a quote from the 1955-era Doc Brown, responding to Marty McFly’s statement about the Delorean time machine running on plutonium:   “I’m sure that in 1985 plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it’s a little hard to come by!”

Of course the 1955 Doc Brown couldn’t have known what the next 30 years held in store for the world, and, of course, plutonium was NOT available in every corner drugstore in 1985, nor is it likely to be in 2015.    The 1955 Doc Brown, while being able to make some intuitive guesses at the future, really had no way of knowing how and when technology would change the face of the future.   Despite the best efforts by analysts or industry pundits, technology always seems to come along and muck up the view into the crystal ball.

Many are probably familiar with the term “disruptive technology”, which is a term given to a technology that fundamentally changes, or “disrupts”, our world, such as cell phones.   More in favor these days is the term “disruptive innovation”, which basically says that it is not so much the specific technology that is disruptive, but rather the application of that technology which disrupts and creates new markets, and ultimately makes a significant impact on our lives.  These disruptive innovations create new markets by applying a different set of values, which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtake existing markets.   For example, the revolutionary invention of the automobile did not immediately displace horse-drawn vehicles, due to the initial expense.   But the introduction of the low-cost, affordable Ford Model T did make a fundamental change in that market.

The same can be applied to energy, whether it be LED lighting, revolutionary biofuels, or hydraulic fracturing.   These are not new technologies, and in fact were invented decades ago.

This ever-advancing march of technology reminds me of the preface of a little known book called “Well Spacing” –

“The evolution of petroleum conservation practices has resulted in great progress over the past 30 years.  Its achievements have been accompanied by improvements in the exploratory effort and by increased efficiency in oil and gas recovery.  These improvements reflect directly the application of science, engineering, and organized research in both geology and production to the oil-finding and oil-extraction processes.  The gradual unfolding of technical know-how in the fundamental principles underlying reservoir and well behavior has been accompanied by a growing application of reservoir engineering to petroleum production methods.”  – Rupert C. Craze, Humble Oil & Refining Company, 1955

That’s right.  1955.   For the curious of mind, the author was my great-uncle, who spent his entire career with the Humble Oil Company, nearly 30 years.     He passed away in 1988, and it makes me wonder if he ever saw the movie “Back to the Future”, and reflected on how technology had changed energy in the 30 years since he wrote that book.  The “Doc Brown of Energy”, if you will.

And now that nearly 60 years has passed since he wrote that passage, it serves to remind us that disruptive technologies will eventually lead to disruptive innovations, creating and shaping markets like we never could have imagined.     Horse and buggies?  Gone.  Tube televisions?  Gone.    Peak oil?  History (and technology) now shows us that it’s as much an issue of economics as it is geology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *