In the early 1530s just around the time King Henry VIII was excommunicated by the Pope due to his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, something interesting happened that set the stage for a quiet energy revolution. The angry and bitter King seized lots of the church’s coal rich lands in northern England and in doing so, triggered the onset of the industrial revolution which came into full swing two centuries later.
During the time of King Henry VIII, the population of England and Wales was about 3 million inhabitants. A century later this had doubled with London itself growing eight-fold. Wood became scarce and the cost of firewood under Elizabeth I and James I ballooned. This also coincided with a time of steep inflation throughout Europe. The time of transition from biomass to coal had arrived.
This transition was primarily driven by individual needs and not necessarily societal needs, albeit businesses and the society as a whole benefited enormously from it. This was a time led by accelerated innovation in mining and power even though coal had been burned in China since the 12th century.
Coal’s share of energy generation in England and Wales rose from 10% in 1560 to 64% in 1760, a date that marks the start of the Industrial Revolution. This amounts to over 200 years of transition from biomass to a new power generation capability. In addition to new sources of energy, population growth also contributed to the creation of economic growth (80% GDP growth from 1750 to 1800) primarily via “capital deepening”. The supply of coal grew tenfold from 3 million tons in 1700, to 30 million tons in 1800, and 300 million tons by 1913 when over 1 million people were employed in this industry.
Entering the 19th century, as output grew as a result of changes in technology and also educational advances, “total factor productivity “ overtook the capital deepening as the main engine for economic growth. And so, the industrial revolution that started in 1760 changed not only the way energy was delivered to the world but also the fabric of societies.
The start of the 20th century, marked the entry of new sources of energy such as oil and gas. However something else started to take shape. In 1927, while coal was still claiming its lion’s share of total primary energy consumption, the first commercial wind turbine was sold on the open market which arguably marks the start of the renewables’ revolution. The Hoover Dam came in 1935 while 1958 was the year in which the first US satellite was powered only by solar energy.
Today, almost 100 years into this journey, the share of primary energy from renewable sources sits at 13.5% globally, and under the Net Zero scenario renewables may reach 65% in global primary energy as soon as 2050.
In 2021, investments in energy transition technologies reached a staggering $755 billion, an increase of 27% from the year prior. The investment was spread among a wide range of technologies and sectors such as renewable energy ($365bn), electrified transport ($273bn), nuclear ($31bn), energy storage ($8bn), hydrogen ($2bn), carbon capture and storage ($2.3bn) to name just the main ones. China and the United States were responsible for around half of that investment while the top 10 countries invested cumulatively over $560bn.
But there is still work to be done. The UNFCCC estimates that in order to reach the net-zero goal on a global scale, $32 trillion of investment will be necessary by 2030 and $125 trillion by 2050.
Will we succeed during this existential crisis?
The answer, I believe, depends on the level of confidence in our collective ability to commit. Unlike the transition from biomass to coal, the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy will not be driven primarily by individual needs but by future collective societal needs. Hence a much harder sell.
The pastry munching crowd at Davos 2023 (as Hamilton Nolan calls it in his article in The Guardian – an affront to all pastry lovers around the world, myself included) concluded its series of meetings where climate change and energy transitions featured prominently. However, there is a danger that these forums lack true and relevant representation. In the Constitution of Knowledge, Jon Rauch talks about the Western societies developing an “epistemic operating system”—that is, a set of institutions for generating knowledge from the interactions of biased and cognitively flawed individuals.
Accordingly, certain segments of the energy industry, politicians, and interest groups will continue to pay lip service to the clean energy discourse without taking concrete steps to transform and decarbonise. While this may be true, there is still a quiet sense of hope that comes with advances in new clean technologies which once commercially viable, can diffuse quickly and at significant rates.
In the US, Ubiquitous Energy gathers energy from UV and infrared light via a transparent solar coating technology that can potentially change the manner in which we integrate power generation into residential and commercial settings. And we are not only talking about solar and wind, but also about an array of other energy bets and technologies yet to be fully developed and commercialised. Swiss based Energy Vault and Green Gravity in Australia are leading the way in new energy storage technologies while at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco scientists achieved "net energy gain" for the first time using nuclear fusion. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a 35 nation project in southern France which will come online in 2025 is designed to yield in its plasma a ten-fold return on power hence paving the way toward a future where fossil fuel in power generation will be a story told by our children to their children.
The roadmap to a full energy transition is paved with discussions, debates, commitments, investments, successes, and failures but having the end goal in mind may just keep us on the right track to success.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.