4.1. The Inertia of Fossil Fuels
The transition in our energy systems required to stem the environmental and health consequences of hydrocarbon fuels will not be driven by the scarcity those fuels. The shares of the fossil fuels exhibit plateau-like behavior beginning in the 1990s, the longest period of stability since the Industrial Revolution (Figure 14
). Although there may be further shifts from coal to gas, the overall dominance of fossil fuels is likely to continue for an extended period. A massive infrastructure exists to utilize the fossil fuels, and large quantities of potentially recoverable oil, natural gas, and coal exist.
There are about 640,000 EJ of potentially recoverable, conventional and unconventional fossil fuels; this quantity dwarfs the 420 EJ of fossil fuel that we currently consume each year. Technological and economic conditions must be right to enable the commercial extraction of those fuels. Recent history demonstrates the power of technological advances to expand the resource base. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have combined to create a new energy boom in North America by making it profitable to develop oil sands, shale gas and tight oil. It is reasonable to assume that these and other unconventional fossil fuels could continue to be brought into production by technical advances for a considerable time into the future. This highlights a frequently overlooked point: proponents of renewable energy argue that cost reductions for new technologies will quickly make them competitive with conventional energy. This will drive a substitution of renewables for fossil fuels. But innovation is also occurring in the development of the fossil fuels, so the renewables are chasing a moving target.
Large-scale extraction of unconventional fossil fuels poses great environmental risk. Since 1751 approximately 365 billion metric tons of carbon (1351 billion metric tons of CO2
) have been released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production (Boden et al.
, 2010) [86
]. The amount of carbon in potentially recoverable fossil fuels (≈15,000 Pg) is about 40 times the amount of carbon that has been released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production since 1751. More than 80 percent of the carbon remaining in fossil fuels is contained in coal. Tapping this vast store of carbon would make it impossible to limit future temperature rise to 2 °C as recommended by parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. The only force that appears to be able to alter this picture in the foreseeable future is a strong policy that internalizes the substantial external environmental and social costs of fossil fuels, especially climate change.
4.2. Comparison to European Countries
compares our results in the United States to those of the Environment, Growth, and Pollution (EGP) Network for European countries ([4
Energy consumption per capita in selected countries, 1800–2000. Sources: [4
] for Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Spain; [77
] for England and Wales; this analysis for US.
Energy consumption per capita in selected countries, 1800–2000. Sources: [4
] for Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Spain; [77
] for England and Wales; this analysis for US.
Fuel wood consumption in the early United States far exceeded even that of a colder European country such as Sweden. This abundance of firewood, and the extravagance of its use, have long been noted (see variously [33
]). Much of this abundance was driven by the need to clear land for farming. Schurr and Netschert [1
] estimate that settlers cleared 5 million acres per year for farmland in the decade 1850–1960; assuming a low yield of only 15 cords per acre this becomes 75 million cords per year, out of total 100 to 125 million cords per year consumed for fuel. Kander (2002) [14
] estimated Sweden’s 1800 consumption at about 33 GJ per capita. Sweden was an early adopter of technologies that increased energy efficiency, such as the chimney damper and the Cronstedt stove. Stoves became widespread enough to reduce per-capita fuel wood consumption in the U.S. only around 1850. England was no longer heavily forested by 1800, so its fuel wood consumption was only about 2 GJ per capita in that year. The Netherlands was similarly limited, at only 3 GJ per capita. Per-capita fuel wood consumption in Spain in 1850 and Italy in 1861 was one-third that of Sweden, but three times as great as in the Netherlands.
The early U.S. had more draft animals per capita than Sweden, Italy, or Spain, and significantly more than the densely populated countries of England, Wales, and the Netherlands. At no time in Warde’s series did animal feed exceed human food in England and Wales, while in the U.S. it was routinely twice as high, and up to 260% of the human food energy input.
4.3. Motivating Factors in Transitions: Early/Late Adopters and Niche Markets
Energy technologies or systems with a relatively short period of dominance are often pioneers in serving a new energy demand. There are several reasons why they may be replaced:
They are optimal at small scale, but encounter diminishing returns at larger market sizes;
They assume initial leadership due to low initial costs, but are surpassed by technologies that require larger scale or market size to be economical;
The demonstrated demand serves to stimulate innovation, which leads to competitors emerging; and,
Innovations developed by the pioneer directly enable future competitors.
Examples include the following:
Whale oil’s heyday lasted from 1830 to 1870, peaking in 1847 for volume and 1853 for dollar value. The demonstrated demand for lighting fuel and its diminishing returns to scale were manifest in its high price. These factors encouraged research in alternative lighting fuels.
Coal oil, developed in the 1850s, was soon replaced by petroleum kerosene, which was available at lower cost and employed many of the same refining technologies.
Horse travel in the cities had a relatively short period of dominance, with alternatives emerging as it horse-drawn transportation neared logistical limits. These alternatives included the electric streetcar and the bicycle.
Bicycles had a short period of massive popularity in the 1890s. Numerous features of the 1890s bicycle industry would be transferred into the automobile industry, such as pneumatic tires, variable speed transmission, advocacy for paved roads, extensive advertising, and mechanized mass production. Automotive inventor Hiram Maxim specifically noted that the bicycle “could not satisfy the demand which it had created” ([62
], p. 186), a common downfall of pioneer technologies.
Small wind turbines proliferated in the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s. At a small scale, they had a lower cost per kilowatt-hour than central-station power plants. The demonstrated demand for electricity, and sales of lights and appliances, provided the impetus for the U.S. government to proceed with rural electrification programs in the 1930s.
The factors influencing energy transitions extend beyond the inherent characteristics of the technology and the price of fuels. Geels (2002) [22
] provides an extensive discussion of the relationship of human networks to technology transitions. The three levels of organization are niches, regimes, and landscapes. Technology transitions are the outcome of developments at multiple levels affecting actors through a network of linkages. Niches are particular applications or market segments where a new technology is first applied. Niches are embedded in regimes, such as the broader energy sector. A regime includes a network
of actors and social groups; a set of rules
, including policy, knowledge, practices, principles, and behavioral norms; and material
elements such as sector-specific infrastructure and machines. Regimes are embedded within sociotechnical landscapes, deep structural trends that provide the context for the actors within the regimes. Landscapes include spatial arrangement of cities, transportation infrastructure, fundamental economic and political structures, cultural values, environmental pressures, and “technology-external factors”. Geels (2002, p. 1260) notes, “The context of landscape is even harder to change than that of regimes. Landscapes do change, but more slowly than regimes”.
The energy transitions of the United States can be viewed through this perspective, with niche applications being particularly prominent in the development of electric lighting, batteries, and photovoltaic systems. Trains and steamships also began as niche technologies, but much of their development occurred in the United Kingdom. The energy regime has changed numerous times, from household provision of energy use to regulated monopolies to competitive markets. Associated regimes, such as manufacturing, have improved through stepwise reconfiguration as detailed in Geels (2006) [84
], incorporating new technologies incrementally. Major landscape changes, both nationally and globally, have been affected by energy regimes, with the location of petroleum deposits playing a major role in the strategic decisions of the Second World War and the price of oil playing a major role in the trajectory of the Cold War. Yergin (2009) [89
] discusses the impact of oil on these landscape changes.
Emerging energy technologies will gain market share in certain niches and markets, depending on the costs of inputs (as emphasized in Allen [10
]), the valuation placed on their performance characteristics (including emissions), and where the innovation takes place. As these technologies mature, they will be adopted by other markets. Grubler (2012) [3
] also notes that late adopters have the advantage of moving into and out of energy systems more quickly than early adopters. The latecomers face lower expenses since some technological progress has been accomplished by the early adopters. Allen (2009) [10
] reinforces this observation with example of iron smelting with blast furnaces in France, and uses local economics to explain why
a country might choose to be a late adopter. Compared to Britain, France had low-cost labor and high-cost energy. A furnace that reduced labor requirements compared to earlier ironworking methods, but consumed prodigious amounts of coal, might make sense in Wales but not in France. France skipped the first several generations of coal-fired blast furnaces, adopting later generations of the technology after the English had improved the designs to reduce fuel consumption.
Other disadvantages of pioneers are higher sunk costs in older technologies, and, in some cases, investment of human capital providing resistance to change. A “leapfrog” scenario is the ultimate extension of Grubler’s “last-in, first-out” observation, being “never-in.” In such a scenario, less developed countries lacking an extensive fossil fuel infrastructure skip that step altogether and instead develop low-carbon energy systems. One example that proponents hope to replicate is the way that some African countries went straight to cell phone networks without ever having land-lines (Sauter and Watson, 2008) [90
]. Carbon-free energy may face a steeper climb, since end-use technologies such as telephones have more rapid transitions than energy supply technologies.
Any energy option has a range of scales at which it is competitive. Below that level of demand, the technology’s advantages do not warrant the requisite capital investment. Above that point, constraints lead to diminishing returns. Consider rural electrification. If electricity demand is low, it is not economical to lay power lines. Small wind turbines and photovoltaic systems with battery backup will have a lower cost. At a higher level of demand, grid extension from a distant power plant becomes the least-cost option. At a very high level of demand, transmission capacity may be strained, and locating a power plant in the area may become the least-cost option. Grid extension has a window of viability over a certain range of demand. This is seen repeatedly in energy transitions. Options developed for smaller scale are replaced by those that require larger scale to be economical, perhaps requiring investments in infrastructure or manufacturing. Rather than simple storehouses, manufactured ice required factories and decades of research and development. Oil and gas pipelines, electricity generators and grids, and automobile factories and highways all represent major capital investment. None of these would have been developed had not prior smaller-scale technologies demonstrated and grown a demand for energy services.
4.5. The Quality of Energy Services
Energy quality embodies the notion that energy services include a broad spectrum of performance characteristics. Not all vehicle-miles represent equally valuable transportation, nor do all BTUs represent equally comfortable heating. The history of energy transitions in the United States shows many instances of new energy technologies succeeding on quality of service. This is more common with end-use technologies, but in some cases fuels compete on performance characteristics. The competition among lamp oils in the 1840s and 1850s is a vivid illustration of competing claims and advantages. No fuel was bright, safe, and inexpensive; all met only one or two of these criteria. Chemical batteries, despite costing much more per kilowatt-hour than grid electricity, offer portability and convenience that warrant their higher price. Photovoltaic technology has found niche applications for off-grid power ranging from the space program to camping equipment. Among end-use technologies, early electric lights competed against gas lighting by offering superior safety in environments such as factories and theaters. Automobiles competed against streetcars by offering greater flexibility and speed.
The rise of electricity allowed a wide range of fuels to contribute to energy supply. Daugherty ([18
], p. 28) notes, “The electric generator and the electric motor are, of course, not prime movers, but the current produced by one and used by the other has enabled this country to use sources of power which otherwise would be largely untouched”. This refers to water power, which had been rendered a minor niche player for direct motive power by the steam engine. Water power could not be easily transported, and so water-driven factories had to be sited on fast-moving rivers. Hydroelectricity could be transported much more readily, allowing water to return to competitiveness. This aspect of electricity generation is seen repeatedly. Coal lost its market share in transportation to oil, and its market share in heating (both residential and industrial) to natural gas. Electricity generation not only opened up a new market for coal—enabling it to recover and exceed its previous levels of consumption—but also opened up markets for low-quality coal that had previously been ignored, such as lignite. More recently, electricity has enabled the reintroduction of wind power to the U.S. energy economy.
Lighting technology saw a succession of changes, not always corresponding to changes in the fuel. A single fuel, coal, supplied lighting technologies from gas lights and oil lamps to incandescent bulbs to LEDs. A single lighting technology, the oil lamp, utilized fuels made from whale blubber, pig fat, vegetable seeds, coal, petroleum, or alcohol and turpentine. Similarly, a modern electric light can be supplied by any of a variety of different energy resources. Transitions in lighting end-use technologies expanded the provision of energy services much more than did changing the fuel. New energy end-use technologies can offer new or greatly improved energy services, offering superior quality of service or orders of magnitude improvements in efficiency.
4.6. The Quality of Energy Sources
The history of energy transitions in the United States is one of increasing energy quality. By key metrics such as energy return on investment (EROI) (Cleveland, 2005) [91
] and energy and power density (Smil, 2010) [72
], fossil fuels were superior (“higher quality”) to wood, food, and fodder. Even in these cases, the energy quality was not strictly an inherent property of the fuels, but rather a composite of the fuel’s own properties, the infrastructure for producing it, the technology for utilizing it, and the ability to mitigate the impacts. For much of the early industrial period, coal was not
a superior fuel to wood, but a “backstop resource” that was lower-quality but existed in greater abundance, as detailed in Allen (2009) [10
]. Making coal of comparable quality to wood for many applications required development of new technological processes such as coking. Cost reductions in the United States resulted from improved transportation infrastructure such as laying railroad tracks through coal fields. This monetized the advantage of the greater spatial energy density of coal compared to wood, and improved EROI by reducing the energy demands for transporting the fuel.
The current list of substitutes for fossil fuels have some decidedly lower quality attributes. Their EROI is lower than fossil fuels. The spatial power density for renewable electricity generation is markedly lower than generation from fossil fuel combustion. Changing the power density-determined infrastructure of energy systems that were created over more than a century for electricity generation from fossil fuel combustion will not be easy, and will take significant time to unfold (Smil, 2010). In addition, the intermittency of solar and wind power means they are not “dispatchable”. Their low capacity factor adds an additional cost to their utilization compared to generation from fossil and nuclear fuels. The spatial distribution of renewable energy flows means that significant new infrastructures will be needed to collect, concentrate and deliver useful amounts of power and energy to demand centers.
The “low quality” challenges associated with renewable energy are not insurmountable. For example, innovation has raised the EROI for electricity generation from solar photovoltaic systems (Raugei et al.
, 2012) [92
]. Expanded market penetration of electric vehicles could provide a massive amount of storage capacity that would mitigate the effects of intermittency (Kempton and Tomić, 2005) [93
]. Perhaps most importantly, renewable energy generally has a much lower external cost compared to fossil fuels, so any policy that incorporates the external costs of climate change and health impacts will immediately make some forms renewable energy more viable.
4.7. Implications for Future Transitions
Smil (2003) ([94
], p. 162) recounts the observation of Cesare Marchetti in 1979 that energy transitions seemed to be regular and predictable, “as though the system had a schedule, a will, and a clock”. But Smil (2003) argues that it is possible that energy transitions cannot
be mathematically modeled, and that scenarios are better used in a normative sense, saying what should happen rather than what will happen. Similarly, Nye (1998) [8
] argues that transitions are the consequence of human decisions and not deterministic trends. Rifkin (2011) [95
] also stresses the importance of culture and choices, rather than assuming that mathematical models can explain energy use. Fouquet (2008) [5
] also notes that demand for energy services is not fixed, and is significantly affected by culture and by advertising. Fouquet (p. 190) notes, “So, before transport technologies were introduced, there was generally not an important potential demand for these technologies”. Other energy services were associated with conspicuous consumption, and Fouquet (p. 291) observes, “It was the rich and socially mobile, and the advertising companies (and the large corporations paying the publicity) that enabled new technologies to spread”. Some aspects of innovation and technology adoption can be quantified and modeled, but others are essentially unpredictable.
Researchers are not attempting to predict future changes when we say that transitions in energy supply technologies have historically happened on the order of 40–50 years. Nevertheless, the record demonstrates that societies can accommodate shifts on that timescale. Goals to transition to a low-carbon energy system over 40 years, as have been repeatedly issued by organizations, nations, and states in the past two decades, are not unrealistic seen from this point of view.
Transitions in energy supply
technologies may take several decades, but Lovins et al.
] observes that transitions in end-use
technologies are more rapid, at about 12–15 years. Examples include the transition from horses to automobiles, from steam to diesel/electric locomotives, and from landlines to cellphones. Transitions are fastest for purchases done at the individual level, since the industrial stock consists of large capital investments that have a slower turnover. Grubler (2012) [3
] postulates that, because of the more rapid adoption of end-use technologies, a transition to a low-carbon economy will be best accomplished by a focus on end uses. He also notes, “Performance … initially dominates economics as a driver of technological change and diffusion” (p. 11). In this case, Grubler is emphasizing that end use technologies can overcome high financial cost by providing high utility. Building on Grubler’s theses, emerging low-carbon end-use technologies should focus on performance characteristics, including but not limited to their lower emissions or energy use. The shift from desktop computers to laptops and smartphones illustrates these principles. Reduced energy consumption was not the goal of a shift to laptops and smartphones, but a necessary attribute in order to deliver portability. Advances in lithium-ion batteries, in large part driven by the laptop and phone markets, have in turn accelerated development of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles will do well to compete on grounds other than energy cost. For example, by having independent wheel motors, an electric vehicle can be designed to offer superior handling and easier parallel parking. As Schurr and Netschert (1960) [1
] advised for nuclear power, simply providing a replacement fuel in an existing system is unlikely to effect an energy transition. For the time being, the environmental benefits or technological novelty of electric vehicles seem sufficient to sustain demand. In the long run, substantially superior performance is likely to be instrumental to the success of electric vehicles.
Energy demands such as transportation are shaped by culture, and are not entirely fixed. The technologies to meet these demands have a range of performance characteristics, such as safety, speed, comfort, status, and environmental impact. How those attributes are valued is likewise shaped by culture, climate, and economics, and the resultant valuation determines which technology option has superior performance. Technologies are not always unequivocally “better” or “worse” than one another. If the speed, privacy, and comfort of the automobile made it better than the bicycle, why would any individual who own a car choose to bike to work? And yet commuters in major cities all over the world make this decision. In part, the fact that the bicycle requires physical exertion is what makes it a “high quality” form of transport for many individuals, improving physical and mental well-being. Changing diets and awareness of health effects have made the exertion of biking a positive, rather than a negative. Other benefits of biking include reduced emissions and, in congested cities, possibly faster travel. For the commuters considered, the bicycle has superior performance to the automobile.
4.8. The Closing of the Environmental Frontier
Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the powerful former oil minister for Saudi Arabia, once observed that “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil” (Maass 2005) ([97
], p. 35). Indeed, the oil age, and more generally the fossil fuel age, may end to a shortage of waste assimilation capacity.
The transition from wood to coal occurred when the human population was small, its affluence was modest, and its technologies were much less powerful than today. As a result, environmental impacts associated with energy had negligible global impact, although local impacts were at times quite significant. Fouquet (2011) [98
] demonstrates the high external cost of English coal on that country’s GDP. Fouquet (2008) [5
] notes efforts by King Charles II to remove major coal-using industries from London after the Great Fire of 1666, and Taylor (1848) [99
] reports a royal proclamation of Edward I in 1306 that forbade burning of coal in London while Parliament was in session. As a pioneer in the large-scale use of coal, England suffered significant health impacts from air pollution before other countries did. Fouquet (2011) [98
] estimates that air pollution cost 15%–20% of England’s GDP from 1870 to 1890. The vast majority of coal’s economic costs were externalized. These external costs decreased after 1890 due to a combination of suburbanization (reducing pollutant concentration), smoke control policies, and a shift to cleaner fuels, to the point of being around 2% of GDP in 2000. These external costs were high enough to overwhelm the nominal cost savings from coal. Fouquet (2008) [5
] finds that, when external costs are considered, the total social cost of coal-fueled steam power was higher than that of draft animal power until about 1890. England tolerated high levels of pollution in the name of progress, but had far higher levels of damage caused by this pollution than was acknowledged.
The world today is not at the level of pollution seen in London in 1890. Still, any future energy transition will operate under a new set of environmental constraints, notably the fact that the planet has only one atmosphere and that adverse impacts of emitted pollutants often cannot be confined to one location, one region, or even one continent (National Research Council, 2010) [100
]. Long-transport is common for primary pollutants such as soot particles, windblown dust, mercury from coal-fired power plants, pesticides from agricultural operations, and nitrogen oxides from motor vehicles. Secondary pollutants are also transported long distances, and include ozone, hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric and nitric acids, and secondary smog particles. Long range transport is in part responsible for the impacts of acid deposition over wide areas of Western Europe, eastern North America, and southeastern China. The most prominent reminder that the atmosphere a global commons is the relatively uniform concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is generated by billions of point sources distributed across the planet. Future energy systems must be designed and deployed with environmental constraints that were absent from the minds of the inventors of the steam engine and internal combustion engines.