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The History of Energy Transitions

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The History of Energy Transitions

Over the last 200 years, how we’ve gotten our energy has changed drastically⁠.

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.

The current energy transition is powered by the realization that avoiding the catastrophic effects of climate change requires a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This infographic provides historical context for the ongoing shift away from fossil fuels using data from Our World in Data and scientist Vaclav Smil.

Coal and the First Energy Transition

Before the Industrial Revolution, people burned wood and dried manure to heat homes and cook food, while relying on muscle power, wind, and water mills to grind grains. Transportation was aided by using carts driven by horses or other animals.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the prices of firewood and charcoal skyrocketed due to shortages. These were driven by increased consumption from both households and industries as economies grew and became more sophisticated.

Consequently, industrializing economies like the UK needed a new, cheaper source of energy. They turned to coal, marking the beginning of the first major energy transition.

YearTraditional Biomass % of Energy MixCoal % of Energy Mix
180098.3%1.7%
182097.6%2.4%
184095.1%4.9%
186086.8%13.3%
188073.0%26.7%
190050.4%47.2%
192038.4%54.4%
194031.6%50.7%

As coal use and production increased, the cost of producing it fell due to economies of scale. Simultaneously, technological advances and adaptations brought about new ways to use coal.

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.

The Rise of Oil and Gas

In 1859, 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.

Before the mass production of automobiles, oil was mainly used for lamps. Oil demand from internal combustion engine vehicles started climbing after the introduction of assembly lines, and it took off after World War II as vehicle purchases soared.

Similarly, the invention of the Bunsen burner opened up new opportunities to use natural gas in households. As pipelines came into place, gas became a major source of energy for home heating, cooking, water heaters, and other appliances.

YearCoal % of Energy MixOil % of Energy MixNatural Gas % of Energy Mix
195044.2%19.1%7.3%
196037.0%26.6%10.7%
197025.7%40.2%14.5%
198023.8%40.6%16.3%
199024.4%35.5%18.4%
200022.5%35.1%19.7%

Coal lost the home heating market to gas and electricity, and the transportation market to oil.

Despite this, it became the world’s most important source of electricity generation and still accounts for over one-third of global electricity production today.

The Transition to Renewable Energy

Renewable energy sources are at the center of the ongoing energy transition. As countries ramp up their efforts to curb emissions, solar and wind energy capacities are expanding globally.

Here’s how the share of renewables in the global energy mix changed over the last two decades:

YearTraditional BiomassRenewablesFossil FuelsNuclear Power
200010.2%6.6%77.3%5.9%
20058.7%6.5%79.4%5.4%
20107.7%7.7%79.9%4.7%
20156.9%9.2%79.9%4.0%
20206.7%11.2%78.0%4.0%

In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the share of renewables increased by just 1.1%. But the growth is speeding up—between 2010 and 2020, this figure stood at 3.5%.

Furthermore, the current energy transition is unprecedented in both scale and speed, with climate goals requiring net-zero emissions by 2050. That essentially means a complete fade-out of fossil fuels in less than 30 years and an inevitable rapid increase in renewable energy generation.

Renewable energy capacity additions were on track to set an annual record in 2021, following a record year in 2020. Additionally, global energy transition investment hit a record of $755 billion in 2021.

However, history shows that simply adding generation capacity is not enough to facilitate an energy transition. Coal required mines, canals, and railroads; oil required wells, pipelines, and refineries; electricity required generators and an intricate grid.

Similarly, a complete shift to low-carbon sources requires massive investments in natural resources, infrastructure, and grid storage, along with changes in our energy consumption habits.

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Energy Shift

Mapped: Solar and Wind Power by Country

Wind and solar generate over a tenth of the world’s electricity. Taken together, they are the fourth-largest source of electricity, behind coal, gas, and hydro.

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Solar and Wind per Country

Mapped: Solar and Wind Power by Country

Wind and solar generate over a tenth of the world’s electricity. Taken together, they are the fourth-largest source of electricity, behind coal, gas, and hydro.

This infographic based on data from Ember shows the rise of electricity from these two clean sources over the last decade.

Europe Leads in Wind and Solar

Wind and solar generated 10.3% of global electricity for the first time in 2021, rising from 9.3% in 2020, and doubling their share compared to 2015 when the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.

In fact, 50 countries (26%) generated over a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar in 2021, with seven countries hitting this landmark for the first time: China, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Argentina, Hungary, and El Salvador.

Denmark and Uruguay achieved 52% and 47% respectively, leading the way in technology for high renewable grid integration.

RankTop Countries Solar/Wind Power Share
#1🇩🇰 Denmark 51.9%
#2🇺🇾 Uruguay 46.7%
#3🇱🇺 Luxembourg 43.4%
#4🇱🇹 Lithuania 36.9%
#5🇪🇸 Spain 32.9%
#6🇮🇪 Ireland 32.9%
#7🇵🇹 Portugal 31.5%
#8🇩🇪 Germany 28.8%
#9🇬🇷 Greece 28.7%
#10🇬🇧 United Kingdom 25.2%

From a regional perspective, Europe leads with nine of the top 10 countries. On the flipside, the Middle East and Africa have the fewest countries reaching the 10% threshold.

Further Renewables Growth Needed to meet Global Climate Goals

The electricity sector was the highest greenhouse gas emitting sector in 2020.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the sector needs to hit net zero globally by 2040 to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees. And to hit that goal, wind and solar power need to grow at nearly a 20% clip each year to 2030.

Despite the record rise in renewables, solar and wind electricity generation growth currently doesn’t meet the required marks to reach the Paris Agreement’s goals.

In fact, when the world faced an unprecedented surge in electricity demand in 2021, only 29% of the global rise in electricity demand was met with solar and wind.

Transition Underway

Even as emissions from the electricity sector are at an all-time high, there are signs that the global electricity transition is underway.

Governments like the U.S., Germany, UK, and Canada are planning to increase their share of clean electricity within the next decade and a half. Investments are also coming from the private sector, with companies like Amazon and Apple extending their positions on renewable energy to become some of the biggest buyers overall.

More wind and solar are being added to grids than ever, with renewables expected to provide the majority of clean electricity needed to phase out fossil fuels.

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Energy Shift

How Far Are We From Phasing Out Coal?

In 2021 coal-fired electricity generation reached all-time highs. Here’s the pathway that would be needed to phase it out of the energy mix.

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How Far Are We from Phasing Out Coal?

At the COP26 conference last year, 40 nations agreed to phase coal out of their energy mixes.

Despite this, in 2021, coal-fired electricity generation reached all-time highs globally, showing that eliminating coal from the energy mix will not be a simple task.

This infographic shows the aggressive phase-out of coal power that would be required in order to reach net zero goals by 2050, based on an analysis by Ember that uses data provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Low-Cost Comes at a High Environmental Cost

Coal-powered electricity generation rose by 9.0% in 2021 to 10,042 Terawatt-hours (TWh), marking the biggest percentage rise since 1985.

The main reason is cost. Coal is the world’s most affordable energy fuel. Unfortunately, low-cost energy comes at a high cost for the environment, with coal being the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions.

China has the highest coal consumption, making up 54% of the world’s coal electricity generation. The country’s consumption jumped 12% between 2010 and 2020, despite coal making up a lower percentage of the country’s energy mix in relative terms.

Top Consumers2020 Consumption (Exajoules) Share of global consumption
China 🇨🇳82.354.3%
India 🇮🇳17.511.6%
United States 🇺🇸9.26.1%
Japan 🇯🇵4.63.0%
South Africa 🇿🇦3.52.3%
Russia 🇷🇺3.32.2%
Indonesia 🇮🇩3.32.2%
South Korea 🇰🇷3.02.0%
Vietnam 🇻🇳2.11.4%
Germany 🇩🇪1.81.2%

Together, China and India account for 66% of global coal consumption and emit about 35% of the world’s greenhouse gasses (GHG). If you add the United States to the mix, this goes up to 72% of coal consumption and 49% of GHGs.

How Urgent is to Phase Out Coal?

According to the United Nations, emissions from current and planned fossil energy infrastructure are already more than twice the amount that would push the planet over 1.5°C of global heating, a level that scientists say could bring more intense heat, fire, storms, flooding, and drought than the present 1.2°C.

Apart from being the largest source of CO2 emissions, coal combustion is also a major threat to public health because of the fine particulate matter released into the air.

As just one example of this impact, a recent study from Harvard University estimates air pollution from fossil fuel combustion is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths globally.

The Move to Renewables

Coal-powered electricity generation must fall by 13% every year until 2030 to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals of keeping global heating to only 1.5 degrees.

To reach the mark, countries would need to speed up the shift from their current carbon-intensive pathways to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

How fast the transition away from coal will be achieved depends on a complicated balance between carbon emissions cuts and maintaining economic growth, the latter of which is still largely dependent on coal power.

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