Signs of change

An electric car charging in central London.

An electric car charging in central London. How long might it be before such a sight is commonplace?

I don’t often walk through central London: I find the place mystifying and alienating. But one can sometimes see things there before they become common in other places.

Earlier in 2013 I remember spotting hydrogen cylinders on top of a fuel-cell powered bus. And just before Christmas as I shopped for gifts, I wandered past two electric cars being charged. I had previously seen the charging stations all over the place, but I had never seen them being used.

So how long might it be before such a sight becomes commonplace? Well I don’t know – it’s a question about the future – but it is likely to be decades. And of course electric cars are currently mainly powered by coal and gas burned in power stations, not renewable energy.

Scientific American recently published an article about the slow rate at which ‘new’ sources of energy have historically been adopted. I adapted the data and re-plotted it below.

Graph showing the number of years it took various fuel sources reach a give share of world energy supply - after they reached 5%. What realistic growth rate can we expect for renewables?

Graph showing the number of years it took various fuel sources reach a given share of world energy supply – after they reached 5%. What realistic growth rate can we expect for renewables (3.5% in 2012)?

Notice that throughout the 19th Century, coal was never more than 50% of world energy supply: the world was still burning wood. And notice that the ‘switch to gas’ is still underway.

Each of these transitions represents colossal financial investments from which people will not simply walk away. And since ‘World Energy Supply’ now is vastly larger now than it was in 1850, it is inevitable that change will be slow.

But the lesson of this graph is this: Take Heart. Looking back coal, oil and gas seem like they were somehow ‘obvious’ or inevitable, but that is probably just hindsight. Was it obvious that we would overcome the seemingly impossible engineering challenges required to sink mines, drill wells and capture natural gas?

So when it comes to renewables – and this refers only to ‘modern’ renewables: mainly wind and solar – the rate of rise in usage is unlikely to exceed that seen for coal, oil or gas. But that does not mean that change is not coming.

The slow rate of growth is not something to be proud of, or to rejoice in: but neither is it a cause to berate ourselves and say ‘nothing is happening’. It’s just a measure of how much energy we use, the colossal investment in existing infrastructure, and how much more we need to do.

Hopefully new sights will become visible to us in the decades ahead as we build a new world which doesn’t require fossil fuels to make it work.

3 Responses to “Signs of change”

  1. Ed Davies Says:

    At about 10:00 this Monday morning coal is about 40%, gas about 20% of the grid input. Nuclear about 20%, wind about 10% (actually 12%) and nearly 5% through the French interconnector (so mostly nuclear) with the remaining 5% being dribs and drabs of other interconnectors (Ireland and the Netherlands), biomass and pumped storage. So roughly 60/40 high/low carbon.

    (Note that this ignores “embedded” generation – domestic-scale PV and small wind turbines (reckoned to be about 50% of the metered wind) which are only accounted as a reduction in apparent demand.)

    Plenty further to go but the coal will gradually reduce and the gas is likely to expand slowly in comparison with the lower-carbon sources as more electricity is used (EVs and heat-pumps somewhat offset by better efficiencies of other devices). There’s at least potential for making less mess in the future.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Well said. It is still shocking to me that coal is (as it usually is) the main source of electricity for the UK. I will feel happier – and that’s a promise – when that fraction is less than gas.

  3. Ed Brightman Says:

    Hi Michael,
    I was at a conference on hydrogen and fuel cells recently where there were two slides shown which partly answer your question. They showed a graph of the EU target CO2 emissions of vehicles, which is being brought down steadily over the coming decades (below 100gCO2/km fleet average by 2020, below 60g by 2030, below 30g by 2040), and the likely minimum possible emissions from current fossil fuel technologies, e.g. Diesel engines(~85gCO2/km), hybrids (~60gCO2/km), suggesting that electric cars will become “mainstream” by the late 2020s and hydrogen fuel cell cars will be mainstream by the 2030s. The main point being that the prinicpal driving force is legislation.
    See slide 18 of this presentation and slide 5 of this presentation

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