The Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex thinks the worldwide reliance on burning fossil fuels to create energy could be phased out in a decade. The study sets out to be investigating the issue of time in global and national energy transitions by asking: “What does the mainstream academic literature suggest about the time scale of energy transitions?”
Then the authors ask, what does some of the more recent empirical data related to transitions say, or challenge, about conventional views? The overview of these questions leads to what the authors claim is a self assigned “mainstream” view of energy transitions as long, protracted affairs, often taking decades to centuries to occur.
Countering the “mainstream” view the article then offers some empirical evidence that the predominant view of timing may not always be supported by the evidence. The authors conclude arguing for more transparent conceptions and definitions of energy transitions, and asking for analysis that recognizes the causal complexity underlying them.
In a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Research & Social Science Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Sussex Energy Group analyses energy transitions throughout history and argues that only looking towards the past can often paint an overly bleak and unnecessary picture. Sovacool believes that the next great energy revolution could take place in a fraction of the time of major changes in the past.
In making the case Sovacool noted it would take a collaborative, interdisciplinary, multi-scalar effort to get there, he warned. And that effort must learn from the trials and tribulations from previous energy systems and technology transitions.
Moving from wood to coal in Europe, for example, took between 96 and 160 years, whereas electricity took 47 to 69 years to enter into mainstream use.
Now the study work gets a bit tricky, this time the future could be different, he said – the scarcity of resources, the threat of climate change and vastly improved technological learning and innovation could greatly accelerate a global shift to a cleaner energy future.
The flip side in the study highlights numerous examples of speedier transitions that are often overlooked by analysts. For example, Ontario completed a shift away from coal between 2003 and 2014; a major household energy program in Indonesia took just three years to move two-thirds of the population from kerosene stoves to LPG stoves; and France’s nuclear power program saw supply rocket from 4 percent of the electricity supply market in 1970 to 40 percent in 1982.
Professor Sovacool points out to his credit that each of these cases has in common strong government intervention coupled with shifts in consumer behavior, often driven by incentive forms and economic pressure.
“The mainstream view of energy transitions as long, protracted affairs, often taking decades or centuries to occur, is not always supported by the evidence. Moving to a new, cleaner energy system would require significant shifts in technology, political regulations, tariffs and pricing regimes, and the behavior of users and adopters,” Sovacool said. “Left to evolve by itself – as it has largely been in the past – this can indeed take many decades. A lot of stars have to align all at once. But we have learnt a sufficient amount from previous transitions that I believe future transformations can happen much more rapidly.”
The sum of the study suggests that the historical record can be instructive in shaping our understanding of macro and micro energy transitions yet it need not be predictive.
The gasping missing element is the free choices of those affected. The study offers little, to near nothing in offering choices to the participants in the markets.
Most alarming is no mention is made of how such an effort might be paid for. Most of the existing energy infrastructure would be rendered worthless to be replaced by a supply system at costs and technologies not even known with certainty today. Even more alarming is decisions would be made on technologies likely obsolete before they even are production ready.
At the user end practically everything in transportation would be useless and require a replacement. All gas fired industrial, home heating and portable fuels would disappear. Everyone from the richest to the poorest would have to capitalize nearly an entire suite of transportation such as cars, motorbikes, buses, trains, ships and planes. Industry and the jobs they offer would cease to exist in any economy silly enough to try.
Who would lose all that wealth and just who has the wealth to replace it all? Only liberal academics and socialist central planners know. Horrifying. Better billions of people making choices than a few choosing for everyone.