The Long Transition Ahead

More Work to Be Done

A transition to carbon-free energy is going to take a lot more time and work than we hope.

This was one of the key takeaways from Energy and Civilization: A History by Vlacav Smil, whose opening line presents an interesting perspective on how history, and indeed future developments, can be viewed:

Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done.
— Vlacav Smil


As part of my new year’s goals, I’ve set out to read at least 2 books per month. To keep this moving forward, as well as my goal for blog posts, on any books that are particularly interesting. As a side-note, I initially came across this book on Bill Gates’ list of “5 Amazing Books I Read This Year

If you are remotely interested in energy, electrification, or history in general, grab a copy of this book. The view Smil takes on the history of humanity through the lens of energy, as well as his analyses of current trends is sure to be an interesting read. He establishes this within the first lines of the book:

Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done
— Vlacav Smil

While Smil goes through all phases of human development through an energy lens, my perspective is admittedly from the point of view of "where are we today, and how far do we need to go to transition to a low carbon future?" The answer, as it turns out, it - not that far, and a long way to go still. 

Energy Efficiency and the Jevons Paradox

Energy efficiency, along with the transition to renewable energy, is a hot topic. There are also business models that have risen based on the savings provided by increasing levels of efficiency. However, enter the Jevon’s Paradox, and the long-run energy savings because of increasing efficiency may not be as great as initially hoped.

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth. As a new rule, new modes of economy will lead to an increase in consumption according to a principle recognized in many parallel instances.
— Stanley Jevons

On a macro level, Smil’s examination of the world’s weighted average energy efficiency shows that in 1900, weighted average energy efficiency was around 20%, whereas in 2015 this figure was closer to 50%. This average value does hide national differences, but it illustrates that as a society we are indeed becoming more energy efficient, though intuitively our overall consumption has increased (and is projected to increase). 

This very notion is also a key topic in books such as “The Conundrum” by David Owen. However, there does appear to be a limit to this paradox. Smil points to a study by Goldstein, Martinez, and Roy that suggests the “rebound effect”, particularly in developed countries where energy use is reaching saturation.

Rebounding attributable to higher efficiency at the end-use level are often small and decrease over time, and specific economy-wide rebounds may be trivial, even net positive.
— Goldstein, Martinez, and Roy (2011)

A criticism, however, is that this study may be looking at too specific a case to be relevant. Though OECD data in the latest IEA Key World Energy Statistics Report seem to show that energy use in developed countries has become relatively flat since 2010. This could suggest that ongoing pushes for energy efficiency and conservation, assuming OECD energy intensity is beginning to reach saturation levels, will begin to decrease energy use in developed countries. However, developing nations have yet to reach this level, meaning there is still a hurdle to cross before energy efficiency gains are realized. Or, perhaps, there will be a leapfrog effect where the most energy efficient technologies are immediately installed in areas with little to no developed energy infrastructure?

OECD Total Final Consumption appears to be flatlining as recently as 2015

OECD Total Final Consumption appears to be flatlining as recently as 2015

Emissions – Moving Towards Zero?

Carbon dioxide emissions are a key topic, if not THE topic of international discussions on climate change. Reducing them is the name of the game – so how are we doing according to Smil?   

Adapted from Vlacav Smil's Energy and Civilization

Adapted from Vlacav Smil's Energy and Civilization

The world is, albeit rather slowly, reducing the emissions intensity of the fuel it is using. Below is a table that is adapted from Energy and Civilization which shows the relative decarbonization of the fuels we are using. In this sense, it’s a positive development. Charts from the world bank also seem to confirm that that per-capita emissions intensity is decreasing on a global level in terms of CO2 intensity per $US of GDP created. A good sign, but there is still a long way to go before complete decoupling of emissions and GDP growth. 

CO2 Emissions per $US of GDP appear to be decreasing, though far from being decoupled (Source: World Bank)

CO2 Emissions per $US of GDP appear to be decreasing, though far from being decoupled (Source: World Bank)

While the decrease in per capita emissions does show progress, as noted from the table above and many studies today, our absolute emissions are rising, which is ultimately what we need to reduce if we want to stay within the goals set out by the Paris Agreement. 

As many know - global CO2 emissions are still rising (Source: World Bank)

As many know - global CO2 emissions are still rising (Source: World Bank)

To this end, the rise of low-carbon renewable energy like solar and wind appears to be making a dent, though in terms of energy generation there is still a long way to go. 

The Transition to Renewables – A Long Road Ahead

Whenever Smil spoke about a transition to a new energy supply, my attention was drawn, if only to answer the question: “How long will a transition to renewable energy take?”

Based on the figures presented in the book, if we hope to achieve 100% renewables, let alone 25% or 30%, quite the chasm still needs to be crossed.

  • First, one of the principles Smil speaks about is that “Every energy transition to a new form of energy supply has to be powered by the intensive deployment of existing energies and prime movers”. He illustrates this with the examples of past transitions: 
  • The transition from wood to coal extensively used the power of human muscles (the main prime movers at the time)
  • The transition from coal to oil extensively used the combustion of coal, and finally
  • “The transition from oil to renewables can be seen as the embodiment of the fossil energy required to smelt the requisite materials, synthesize the needed plastics, and process other materials requiring high-energy outputs”.

While studies have shown that lifecycle GHG emissions of solar and wind are comparatively lower than conventional plants, we will still need to burn more fossil fuels to create the generators we need.

In terms of the pace of these transitions, Smil’s examination shows a worrying, if somewhat counterintuitive result when coupled with the narrative of “the world is moving faster than ever”. Each subsequent energy transition is taking longer than the last, and with a lower "current terminal penetration" than the last.

Each energy "transition" appears to be taking longer than the last

Each energy "transition" appears to be taking longer than the last

“Prerequisites for enormous infrastructural investments and the inertia of massively embedded energy systems” are identified as being the culprit behind the increasing timescales for transitions. This has certainly been the case for the deeper integration of DERs into existing electrical grids.

Though Smil notes that “the sequence of three substitutions does not mean that the fourth transition, now in it’s earliest stage (with fossil fuels being replaced by new conversions of renewable energy flows), will proceed at a similar pace”, he projects that the transition to modern renewables is likely to follow past trends. Assuming the timeframe outlined by Smil (50 years for 25% penetration in the latest projection), and assuming modern renewables (solar and wind) will hit 5% of global energy supply by 2020, this would put solar and wind at 25% penetration by 2070. This timeframe is concerning considering the current situation for carbon emissions. 

Final Thoughts, and the Challenges Ahead

In the fight for a low-carbon future, progress has certainly been made on the energy efficiency, decarbonization, and renewable energy fronts (especially with the recent growth of energy storage). Headlines also paint an appealing picture highlighting this progress in developed regions like Germany, and California within the U.S.

However, on a global scale, decarbonization has barely begun, and the capacity additions seen for modern renewables seem show a pattern reminiscent of the beginning of the rapid growth phase. However, as Smil alluded to, regulatory and infrastructural hurdles still need to be addressed before the widespread adoption of renewables, and even more challenges await when pushing towards the target of 25%, or even 30% renewable generation.

Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History does a thorough analysis on how we as a civilization have evolved through the lens of energy use (from prehistoric times to today), and how difficult it will be to perform yet another transition to low-carbon sources. 

An initial thought was that the growing threat of climate change will provide motivation for the energy transition to move faster this time around, though as a professor of mine said often, saying “this time, it’s different” can be comforting, but without concrete backup often leads to more of the same. Given, there are also new technological innovations that could spur the growth of DERs, though time will tell if they remain effective. In any case, regardless of markets where DERs appear to be maturing, there is still much more growth that is needed to meet climate goals around the world.

Regarding the book, the analysis that Smil carries out on modern trends through the lens of the past provides a grounding view on the massive gap between today and total decarbonization. If you are even remotely interested in energy, I highly recommend that you have a look at this book and Smil's other works.