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March 15, 2021   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

Power for the History Books: Electrification and Diesel

Uniformly history will serve that both diesel and electrification were each transformative for their time.

In 100 or maybe even 50 years from now, it is entirely possible that historians will look back and recount the path of how electrification of the transport sector revolutionized the world and saved the climate. If that narrative holds true, it would be following an earlier chapter in our global history - the story of its time – how diesel technology revolutionized and industrialized key sectors of the economy.   

As March 18, 2021 is recognized as the 163rd year of the birth of inventor Rudolf Diesel, we traditionally think about that history that lead us to today. But imagine for a moment how a historian writing a chapter in a future history book might read, and just how diesel and electric technologies might be judged. 

There are a surprising number of similarities.

Uniformly history will serve that both diesel and electrification were each transformative for their time. They enabled new levels of productivity for engines, vehicles and machines and changed the course of mobility and work. Diesel’s combination of energy density of the fuel and efficiency of the combustion cycle made it the most energy efficient internal combustion engine. While not energy dense, storage of electrical energy in batteries and its use to directly drive electric motors opened new opportunities that for the first time were not rooted in the internal combustion engine and liquid fuels. 

Both diesel and electric were controversial, in large part because of the fuels that powered them – diesel because of its link to fossil fuels and issues of extraction and refining - electric because of its issues relative to extraction of rare earth metals mined largely from third-world countries. 

Both diesel engines and electricity were able to source fuels from different kinds of energy sources - solar, wind, fossil for generating electric power and petroleum or renewable biofuels for powering diesel engines. History will show the arc of renewable fuels first used in Rudolf Diesel’s initial demonstration of his compression engine (fueled by peanut oil in Paris in 1900 at the Paris Exposition Universelle) to a time when the use of renewable fuels rapidly evolved as mainstream low-carbon fuels that ensured diesel’s inclusion as a solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling global climate change. 

Both came at times pivotal in the nation’s history - diesel at a time when more power was needed to build and power the industrial revolution and modernization of transportation, infrastructure, and heavy equipment. Electrification at a time when recognition of mans impact on the climate and need to control greenhouse gases came more clearly into focus.

Diesel and electric power shared some secret bonds. Early grid-based electrical generating systems were vulnerable to extreme weather events resulting in frequent power outages some on extraordinary scale. Diesel engines were the gold standard for backup power, and the key part of the “doomsday black start” scenario if power generation were to shut down completely and must be restarted. Just as climate concerns fueled demand for on and offshore based wind energy and solar arrays, it turned out that diesel equipment was needed and more important than ever in building and servicing these new renewable electric-generating energy sources. For some diesel vehicles and equipment, diesel and electric worked together. Instead of belt-driven components - fans, alternators, water pumps - these were electrified, and the traditional diesel engine performed to create electricity at optimum steady state conditions.

Not surprisingly, advocates for both diesel and electrification were not afraid to express their views of the other technology. Diesel engines were called out for their role in air pollution - even as the technology achieved near zero emissions. Electrification advocates deflected discussion on issues such as limitations on rare-metal mining and supply, battery lifecycles and recyclability and sought to look the other way when sourcing of electricity was discussed and it often became clear that not all was from renewable sources but rather largely fossil (natural gas, coal) and nuclear... “trading tailpipe emissions for smokestack emissions,” as it was known.   

Trading barbs over technology superiority is part of the cycle of life, but the competitive spirit leads to more innovation and more benefits to customers that choose to use a technology and live with it every day, whichever technology that might be.

In the end, future historians will probably come to the realization that neither diesel nor electric, nor any technology that came before them or after them proved to be the “perfect” technology - all had issues, limitations, and positive and negative aspects. 

Those alive at the time did their best with their knowledge of the day to improve the technologies in their care and leverage their capabilities for the betterment of mankind, and best serve their customers. And historians will recognize that both diesel and electric did that.

First Diesel Engine

The first diesel engine. Rudolf Diesel's first hulking 10-foot tall cast iron single cylinder apparatus is now transformed into today’s modern engines sporting 2-16 cylinders delivering 5 hp to over 10,000 hp. 


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Ezra Finkin
Director, Policy

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