Histories of Transitions

Until recently, the study of “energy transitions” had been modelled on the shift from traditional energy sources such as wood, biomass, muscular force, wind, and water power to fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable energy sources that started in eighteenth century Britain and is still underway in some African and Central American countries. The realization, however, that fossil fuel combustion and the massive release of CO2 into the atmosphere has increased greenhouse gas concentration to the point where climate and natural systems might be irreversibly affected has opened a new and urgent agenda: The downscaling of fossil fuel consumption to attain the most efficient exit pathway from this pattern of energy production. How to get from here to there? To achieve a “low carbon economy,” CO2 emissions must be either radically reduced, captured, and stored safely underground, or mitigated by other technologies.

Gallery 1: Histories of transitions

Often considered a single event drawn out over 50 to 150 years, the classical model of energy transition proves to be a constellation of multiple independent but mutually reinforcing events. What was previously regarded as a single substitution process of older and less efficient power sources by modern equipment with higher efficiency ratios (input–output conversions) and energy densities (amount of energy per unit mass), is actually a process driven by the search for additional, better, and cheaper services associated with the deployment of new energy sources and new technologies.

Take, for example, the classic commodity of coal. Every time a technological advance promised an energy service innovation, coal diffusion took off.  First, domestic consumption in hearths and “fire-cages” spread the use of good-quality bituminous coal in spite of the disadvantages (filling the house with smoke and soot). Simple reverberatory furnaces also consumed coal for smelting non-ferrous metals. During the eighteenth century, the discovery of a method for using coke in furnaces to make small cast iron objects provided a stepping stone for wide industrial use. Later, coke was adopted as the feedstock for finery forges in the final stages of iron production and more broadly in larger blast furnaces. From here, coal's expansion was swift. The steam engine extended coal's applications as a general source of industrial power as railways and steamboats took fossil fuel demand to new heights, particularly after 1840. Meanwhile scientists discovered that coal could be distilled in a “retort” so as to give off carbureted hydrogen (methane) and hydrogen, together with other gases. After being washed, the gases could be stored, purified, and distributed through pipes to feed local networks of lighting-gas customers.  Known as “urban gas,” this distilled coal further amplified demand for fossil fuels.