In a climactic scene from the acclaimed Batman movie The Dark Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent tells his dinner companions: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

The phrase foreshadowed the character arcs of both Dent and Batman in the movie: Dent would become a villain, while Batman would assume responsibility for his crimes (becoming a villain in public perception) so Dent could die a hero.   

“Die a hero or become the villain” describes the arc of many technologies, depending whether they fail -- allowing proponents to imagine rosy alternate futures -- or flourish, improving the human condition, until they become progress traps whose previously unimportant side effects create crises of their own.

A meteoric rise

Fossil fuel usage began in earnest two centuries ago, and they quickly ousted biomass and livestock as our primary external energy sources. While wood stoves and horse-drawn carriages became memories of a rustic, simpler time, fossil fuels catalyzed a twentyfold increase in our collective energy use and spawned modern society.

The rising tide of cheap energy has raised living standards to previously inconceivable levels -- at least among those fortunate enough to have energy-intensive lifestyles. These facts form the core (or one of the cores) of the argument for the moral case for fossil fuels, as discussed on The Energy Gang podcast two years ago.

Source: Vaclav Smil

Falling from favor and becoming the villain

Fossil fuels deserve credit for ushering in the Industrial Age (setting the stage for today’s Information Age). But centuries on, their cumulative emissions have begun destabilizing the climate. As concerns about global warming have grown, fossil fuels found themselves ever more demonized.

With the public focused on carbon pollution, the fossil sector’s long-time defense -- that it created prosperity at home and alleviated poverty abroad -- is becoming less attractive.

Most threateningly of all, fossil fuels are now being challenged by renewable energy technologies, which have begun outperforming them on key metrics.

First, renewables now account for more jobs than the fossil sector in numerous countries (in the United States, solar out-employs oil, gas and coal combined). Second, advocates would argue renewables have proven more effective at alleviating energy poverty in the world's least-developed countries. Third, solar and wind now offer a superior EROI -- or energy return on investment -- than new fossil fuel extraction. (Wind’s EROI beat fossil fuels in a 2010 meta-analysis, with significant industry improvements since then; solar appears to have surpassed fossil fuels last year, with improvements every year.)

Redemption paths

It will be difficult for fossil fuels to repair their reputation. Celebrating their “awesomeness” in the face of climate destabilization is simply tone-deaf. That said, hydrocarbons are the feedstocks for polymers and plastics, themselves miraculous materials which might facilitate breakthrough renewable energy cost reductions. Petrochemicals might therefore offer fossil fuels their best chance for public-perception redemption; this would also allow the continued extraction of large volumes of hydrocarbons.

As for the fossil giants themselves, some are preparing for a transition, and thus might avoid vilification. Dong Energy is divesting from its namesake fossil fuels ("Dong" is an acronym for Danish Oil and Natural Gas); Total S.A. took a controlling stake in photovoltaics-maker SunPower and purchased battery-maker Saft; and Norwegian oil company Statoil leveraged its experience building offshore drilling rigs to enter the offshore wind power market.

Such pivots can succeed. While digital photography destroyed Kodak, rival Fuji survived by entering cosmetics, leveraging the collagen and antioxidant expertise it had developed with photographic film.

The fossil fuel sector has been responsible for much of humanity's progress over the past couple of centuries, thanks to the tremendous amounts of cheap energy it made available. That should have secured it heroic status.

However, fossil fuel consumption remained high enough for long enough for the resulting greenhouse gas emissions to become recognized as a problem. And the industry denied the problem for a long time. Now, it is considered a villain.

Epilogue: The EV1 died a hero...

Turning to the electric vehicle sector, the EV1 was fortunate to die a hero’s death, immortalized in film and lore. If the Tesla Model S is the iPhone of electric vehicles, the EV1 was the Apple Newton -- too far ahead of its time to succeed. 

Source: Wikimedia commons

Though an extraordinary engineering achievement, the EV1 (1,117 units produced) had the misfortune of combining the least appealing features of the first-generation Honda Insight (a two-seater with limited trunk space, it accounted for only 2,216 U.S. sales in its best year) and the Mitsubishi i (limited range, looked strange; it racked up just 1,029 U.S. sales in its best year). Price-wise, its theoretical MSRP of $34,000 in 1996 corresponds to a CPI-adjusted $52,000 today. None of these factors would have helped sales; together, they conspired to limit the vehicle’s appeal.

Just as Steve Jobs was right to terminate the Newton and come back with the iPhone when the necessary technology had advanced, GM was right to end the EV1 and storm back with the Volt when lithium-ion battery prices approached feasibility. 

...and could Elon Musk become a villain?

Former Elon Musk twitter picture. Source: Reddit.

If Tesla had gone bankrupt in early 2013, only to have the Model S lauded as the best automobile built to date, Elon Musk would have gone down as a hero, an electric Icarus of sorts. Fans could have fantasized about a future in which the company dominated the auto market.

Already a villain to conservatives, who see him as something of a subsidy-harvesting huckster, Musk’s hero status depends on the support of progressives -- but points of friction have emerged. And because he has proven unable or unwilling to engage constructively with critics, he risks alienating his base.

In the last few weeks alone, Tesla employees filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, relating to their efforts to form a union. German workers also demanded higher wages. Tesla faces the prospect of a class-action lawsuit relating to its “autopilot” feature, to which the company’s response was characteristically sharp-tongued. (This is in addition to the proposed class-action lawsuit relating to sudden unintended acceleration.)

In response to major shareholders’ concerns about board independence, Musk suggested they invest in Ford instead. Tesla has been recruiting in Mexico for engineers in its California facilities, which cannot please American-born professionals. His TED talk on tunnels enraged urban planners (here's just one example) by proposing an expensive way of making cities friendlier for single-occupant vehicle traffic, when planners are trying to shift residents to literally any other form of commuting. And last week, the SEC opened an investigation into SolarCity and competitor Sunrun about the disclosure of residential solar customer cancellations. 

With far more to manage than simply building an electric car -- and more people scrutinizing his every move -- Musk could very well see himself morph from hero to villain in the eyes of the public. It all depends on how he sells his vision.

It happened to Batman.


Matthew Klippenstein is a renewable energy consultant based in Vancouver, Canada.