The History Of Energy Transitions

Energy transitions throughout history have ushered in times of dramatic change. While energy may be the biggest piece of this emerging story, it is part of a bigger narrative in what increasingly looks like a phase transition. That notion of dramatic change is echoed by several prominent sources. For example, Alec Ross in his recent book The Raging 2020s speaks of a world that resembles the 1930s, a growing sentiment that maps to my research on the period beginning in 1920.

As the visual below illustrates, that 1930 date aligns with the energy transition. That period began the long transition towards our current fossil fuel era – representing a major transitory period for the world. This recent article reflects on the history of energy transitions and the drastic change in our sources of energy over the last 200 years.

These changes were driven by innovations like the steam engine, oil lamps, internal combustion engines, and the wide-scale use of electricity. The shift from a primarily agrarian global economy to an industrial one called for new sources to provide more efficient energy inputs.

Govind Bhutada – Visualizing the History of Energy Transitions

It was not long ago prior to the Industrial Revolution that people burned wood and dried manure to heat homes and cook food (some places around the world still do). Muscle power, wind, and water mills were used for labor, and transportation was supported by carts driven by horses or other animals. As energy prices climbed due to shortages, alternative sources were sought. As a result, countries like the U.K. turned to coal, marking the beginning of the first major energy transition.

The steam engine—one of the major technologies behind the Industrial Revolution—was heavily reliant on coal, and homeowners used coal to heat their homes and cook food. This is evident in the growth of coal’s share of the global energy mix, up from 1.7% in 1800 to 47.2% in 1900.

Govind Bhutada – Visualizing the History of Energy Transitions

Oil & Gas began its meteoric rise in 1859. Per the article, Edwin L. Drake built the first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania, but it was nearly a century later that oil became a major energy source. Innovations like the internal combustion fueled demand, and the rest as they say is history. Now, the world finds itself in the early stages of another energy transition. As the article states, the current energy transition is unprecedented in both scale and speed. That statement applies to every aspect of the phase transition. While it is comforting to think that we have been here before, the truth is, we are staring at a unique time in human history. Transitions however are not smooth, as evidenced by the time lags represented in the visual.

While climate change drives urgency, practical realities matter. Past transitions required changes in human behavior, along with massive investments in natural resources, infrastructure, and grid storage. As the article states, coal required mines, canals, and railroads; oil required wells, pipelines, and refineries, while electricity required generators and an intricate grid. The scale and speed of innovation combined with a major catalyst like climate change may indeed accelerate this transition – but a complex journey lies ahead.

3 thoughts on “The History Of Energy Transitions

  1. […] Energy transitions throughout history have ushered in times of dramatic change. Every day another series of breakthroughs can be found in the media. This astounding level of innovation speaks to the reality of an energy transition that is at the leading edge of a shift from our current era to the next. It also highlights the role that catalysts play in creating the future. In the energy context, the situation in Ukraine is a catalyst that likely accelerates the transition. For example, Denmark wants to build what it calls ‘Energy Islands’ to free Europe from using Russian fuel. This article describes how these islands were part of Denmark’s transition towards renewable energy, but tensions with Russia (catalyst) both expanded and accelerated their vision. […]


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