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Energy Transitions Past and Future

Cutler Cleveland, The Oil Drum

TOD editor Nate Hagens:
This is a guest post from Cutler Cleveland. It provides an excellent big picture overview of what variables we need to consider as we transition away from fossil fuels. Professor Cleveland previously wrote “Energy From Wind – A Discussion of the EROI Research“, and “Ten Fundamental Principles of Net Energy” posted on Cutler Cleveland is a Professor at Boston University and has been researching and writing on energy issues for over 20 years. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Earth, Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Energy, the Dictionary of Energy and the Journal of Ecological Economics

In the coming decades, world oil production will peak and then begin to decline, followed by natural gas and eventually coal production. There is considerable debate about when these peaks will occur because such information would greatly aid energy companies, policy makers, and the general public. But at another level, the timing of peak fossil fuel production doesn’t really matter. A more fundamental issue is the magnitude and nature of the energy transition that will eventually occur. The next energy transition undoubtedly will have far reaching impacts just as fire and fossil fuels did. However, the next energy transition will occur under a very different set of conditions, which are the subject of the rest of this discussion.

The Magnitude of the Shift

Figure 2. Composition of U.S. energy use. (Source: Cutler Cleveland) Click to Enlarge

The last major transition occurred in the late 19th century when coal replaced wood as the dominant fuel. Figure 2 illustrates this transition for the United States, a period often referred to as the second Industrial Revolution (the first being the widespread replacement of manual labor by machines that began in Britain in the 18th century, and the resultant shift from a largely rural and agrarian population to a town-centered society engaged increasingly in factory manufacture).

…The nation was completely transformed by World War I. Coal had replaced wood as the dominant fuel, meeting 70% of the nation’s energy needs, with hydropower and newcomers oil and natural gas combining for an additional 15%. Steam engines and turbines had replaced people and draft animals as the dominant energy converters. The population had soared to more than 100 million, per capita GDP had increased by a factor of five to $6,000, more than half of the nation’s population lived in cities, and manufacturing and services accounted for most of the nation’s economic output. Thus, the transition from wood to fossil fuels, and its associated shift in the energy-using capital stock, produced as fundamental a transition in human existence as did the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

How much renewable energy is needed if it were to replace fossil fuels in the same pattern as coal replaced wood? … The only renewable energy that exceeds annual global fossil fuel use is direct solar radiation, which is several orders of magnitudes larger than fossil fuel use. To date however, the delivery of electricity (photovoltaics) or heat (solar thermal) directly from solar energy represents a tiny fraction of our energy portfolio due to economic and technical constraints. Most other renewable energy flows could not meet current energy needs even if they were fully utilized. More importantly, there are important qualitative aspects to solar, wind, and biomass energy that pose unique challenges to their widespread utilization.

…The Environmental Frontier is Closed

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. Any future energy transition will operate under a new set of environmental constraints. Environmental change has significantly impaired the health of people, economics and ecosystems at local, regional and global scales. 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.

…The energy transition that powered the Industrial Revolution helped create a new economic and social class by raising the incomes and changing the occupations of a large fraction of society who were then employed in rural, agrarian economies. The next energy transition will occur under fundamentally different socioeconomic conditions. Future energy systems must supply adequate energy to support the high and still growing living standards in wealthy nations, and they must supply energy sufficient to relieve the abject poverty of the world’s poorest. The scale of the world’s underclass is unprecedented in human history.


The debate about “peak oil” aside, there are relatively abundant remaining supplies of fossil fuels. Their quality is declining, but not yet to the extent that increasing scarcity will help trigger a major energy transition like wood scarcity did in the 19th century. The costs of wind, solar and biomass have declined due to steady technical advances, but in key areas of energy quality-density, net energy, intermittancy, flexibility, and so on-they remain inferior to conventional fuels. Thus, alternative energy sources are not likely to supplant fossil fuels in the short term without substantial and concerted policy intervention. The need to restrain carbon emissions may provide the political and social pressure to accelerate the transition to wind, biomass and solar, as this is one area where they clearly trump fossil fuels. Electricity from wind and solar sources may face competition from nuclear power, the sole established low-carbon power source with significant potential for expansion. If concerns about climate change drive a transition to renewable sources, it will be the first time in human history that energetic imperatives, especially the the economic advantages of higher-quality fuels, were not the principal impetus.
(8 August 2007)
See original for full text. The points in this overview should be standard knowledge – especially Cutler’s graph showing how energy sources change over time. -BA

Oil forecasting off-target

Mike Meyers, Star Tribune (Minnesota)
It’s a slippery slope for experts trying to predict the price of oil. Their record makes weather forecasting look easy.

Since 1985, federal government forecasts on oil prices have missed the mark, on average, from 6 percent to 116 percent.

“I’ve done 120 short-term energy outlooks and I’ve probably gotten two of them right,” said Mark Rodekohr, a veteran Department of Energy (DOE) economist.

“We’ve long been embarrassed by our mistakes,” he said.

Private forecasters have done little better. Even with Monday’s big drop, if oil prices don’t fall a lot further, 2007 will mark the ninth year in a row that the “market consensus” guessed low on how high oil prices would go.

On average, private forecasters have undershot their target by 31 percent each year, according to a recent analysis by Deutsche Bank.
(6 August 2007)