Here’s what an energy transition looks like

What will our energy future look like? Unlike many of our political leaders, I claim no special insights, but I see some interesting trends. The first is reported by Roger Pielke, Jr. demonstrating the switch away from oil in electric power generation in the early 1980s by OECD countries.

Beginning in the 1970s a sharp rise in oil prices (compared to other fossil fuels) induced power generators to switch from oil to other energy sources, e.g., to coal, nuclear, or alternatives. The result? Over about 40 years oil lost about 90 percent of its share as a source for electricity production (to 2.5 percent from 25 percent).

Pielke makes the following points regarding this dramatic shift, some of which he claims are obvious, but worth repeating. I agree. Here they are:

1. Significant energy shifts happen.

2.They can take many decades.

3. Such shifts depend upon available substitutes.

4. The trend was from more expensive energy to less expensive energy, not vice versa.

Vaclav Smilfrom the University of Manitoba, reinforces these compelling observations: “There is one thing all energy transitions have in common: they are prolonged affairs that take decades to accomplish, and the greater the scale of prevailing uses and conversions the longer the substitutions will take.” Smil’s work contains many stunning examples, including these nuggets:

  • In most of the world’s developed economies it took more than fifty years for internal combustion engines (both gasoline and diesel) to displace agricultural draft animals. (In many low-income nations this process is still not complete.)
  •  James Watt’s improved steam engine, which became commercially popular during the 1770s, remained an important technology into the mid 20th century.
  • The first diesel-powered car (the Mercedes-Benz 260D) was made in 1936. It wasn’t until the 1990s that diesels claimed 15 percent of the new car market in the European Union. (In 2007, diesels share of the U.S. new car market was 3 percent.) This is despite the fact that diesel engines have always been inherently more efficient than gasoline engines (the difference is up to 35 percent), and that modern diesel-powered cars have very low particulate emissions.
Misguided political directives can delay our energy transition from high carbon to lower carbon fuels. For example, in 1978 Congress, concerned about impending shortages of natural gas, passed the Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use ActThis prohibited the use of natural gas for power generation and industrial use.

As a result, capital investment shifted towards a new generation of coal-fired power plants. If all the coal-fired electric generating capacity added during the last thirty years had been fueled by natural gas, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would have been about 20 percent lower. This act was repealed in 1987. Recent natural gas finds in “unconventional” geologic formations (e.g., the Barnett Shale in Texas) may double America’s natural gas (CH4) resources.