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.
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.