Energy transition is not just an imperative: it’s a certainty. As energy scholar Vaclav Smil has argued, transitioning to new energy sources is simply what industrial societies do. We are always in energy transition.
But while it’s certain that we’ll continue to transition towards a new energy mix, far less certain are the nature of this mix and the speed of our transition. Also uncertain, though certain to be profound, are the impacts of this transition on human societies and the economies and earth systems that sustain them.
Technology in Society
Few things excite the public imagination as strongly as radically new technologies. From computers to combustion engines, new technologies transform our lives and the social, economic, and political contexts that frame them. They also transform us from within, shaping our understanding of the world and of our opportunities within it.
Newness and novelty excite us. ‘Innovation’, ‘transformation’, ‘disruption’, ‘revolution’: these are the buzzwords of our time, symbolic of the hope and fear we project onto new technologies and the hype and hyperbole that surround them.
Nowhere is this clearer than in energy technology, which has become an object of fascination—and considerable confusion. New fossil fuel discoveries spur excitement about economic prosperity—and dismay about the consequences of achieving it. Advanced research offers tantalizing low-carbon energy sources—and new ways of extracting previously uneconomic fossil fuel deposits.
Energy Technologies, Old and New
Relatively rare in the din of the energy discussion is clear-headed analysis of the current state of our energy system, its historical evolution, and its future prospects. But such an analysis is critical.
The first step is to understand the incumbent technologies that comprise today’s energy mix and the trajectories they have taken to assume their current positions.
Figure 1 shows the world’s total primary energy supply in 2009, of which 81 per cent came from oil, natural gas, and coal: distinctly old energy sources. Figure 2 shows the evolution of this energy mix, from the mid 19th century to today.
The most salient feature of this graph is the amount of time it has taken for today’s market leaders—oil, coal, and gas—to reach significant market share. Oil, for example, took roughly 100 years to reach 25 per cent of the global energy mix, with tremendous levels of investment and innovation along the way. The lesson here is twofold: energy transitions are slow, as Smil points out, and they require vast commitments of capital, labor, and technology.
If energy transitions are gradual and immensely capital and technology intensive—and if coal, oil, and gas enjoy strong, long-standing incumbency—what are the prospects for a transition towards new energy sources? What might these sources be, and what chances do they have in taking market share from the behemoths dominating today’s energy market?
New Fossil Fuel Sources
The prospects for new fossil fuel sources are relatively easy to assess: we know the nature of all existing fossil fuel varieties, and we know to a great extent the size and whereabouts of most remaining stocks. Where the ‘newness’ will come from, then, will be in technological advances in methods for exploiting difficult-to-extract resources.
These could include less energy intensive methods for extracting shale oil from oil shale; cheaper ways to extract tight oil from shale formations (see here for a helpful primer on the difference between shale oil and tight oil); less energy- and water-intensive methods for extracting oil from tar sands; cheaper and more scalable ways of gasifying coal; better techniques for purging spent oil fields; and safer methods for extracting hydrocarbons from extreme environments such as the Arctic and deep-water regions.
The prospects for new nuclear power sources are intriguing but uncertain. Though nuclear technology has advanced significantly, political appetites for nuclear have wavered and costs have remained high.
Technologically, research has focused on creating passively safe plants with longer lifespans, higher thermal efficiency, smaller waste streams, and lower maintenance costs than incumbents. Increasingly, research has focused on developing generation IV reactions, including small modular reactors (SMRs) and ‘breeder’ reactors such as the sodium-cooled fast reactor. And researchers continue to search for viable ways to produce power through nuclear fusion rather than the fission process exploited by most current and proposed reactors.
The prospects for new renewables are perhaps the most promising, though like nuclear they are uncertain and policy-dependent.
Over the last several decades, renewables research has increased and the costs of producing conventional solar and wind power have plummeted (See figure 3).
With a great deal of renewables research and deployment still underway, further declines can be expected going forward.
Beyond solar and wind, other renewables including tidal and wave energy are enjoying increased attention. The constancy and predictability of wave and tidal are attractive, and there is vast untapped potential for sea-shelf deployment.
Biofuels research continues, led by innovative efforts such as Nathan Lewis’ project on artificial photosynthesis, which has received $120 million in funding support from the US government.
Perhaps the most important technology for the future of renewables is energy storage. Governments have begun to recognize this and respond by increasing research support. In the US, a new battery hub led by Argonne National Laboratory will conduct interdisciplinary research to advance the capacity, performance, and longevity of batteries. Similar efforts are being conducted in the UK and in Japan, China, and South Korea.
Towards a New Energy System
There’s much to be excited about in energy technology. Never before has energy innovation been so widely discussed, and the money and human capital devoted to developing new energy sources has never been greater. Without a doubt, there is a tremendous amount of innovation in the works.
Yet the challenge of penetrating the global energy mix is a steep one, not least due to the immense amount of investment locked in to the existing energy system. And the success of new energy technologies will depend largely on the policies, investments, and research decisions that leaders in government, business, and scientific research make.
In the series that follows, Energy Collective’s Future Energy Fellows will take a closer look at some of these critical issues.
Looking forward to posts over the next few weeks by myself, Celine Rottier and Jeff Kessler on new energy sources such as floating LNG, wave & tidal technology, advanced biofuels and oil sands technology.