Mapping of US wind energy production by state

The history of energy transitions

Over the last 200 years, the way we have got our energy has changed drastically⁠.

These changes were driven by innovations such as the steam engine, oil lamps, internal combustion engines and widespread use of electricity. The shift from a primarily agrarian global economy to an industrial one required new sources to provide more efficient energy inputs.

The current energy transition is driven by the recognition 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, while relying on muscle power, wind and water mills to grind grain. Transportation was aided by the use of carriages driven by horses or other animals.

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

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

Year Traditional biomass% of energy mix Coal% of energy mix
1800 98.3% 1.7%
1820 97.6% 2.4%
1840 95.1% 4.9%
1860 86.8% 13.3%
1880 73.0% 26.7%
1900 50.4% 47.2%
1920 38.4% 54.4%
1940 31.6% 50.7%

As coal consumption and production increased, the cost of producing it decreased due to economies of scale. At the same time, technological advances and adaptations led to new ways of using coal.

The steam engine – one of the most important technologies behind the industrial revolution – was heavily dependent on coal, and homeowners used coal to heat their homes and cook. This is evident in the growth in coal’s share of the global energy mix, up from 1.7% in 1800 to 47.2% in 1900.

The emergence of oil and gas

In 1859, Edwin L. Drake built the first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania, but it was almost a century later that oil became an important source of energy.

Before the mass production of cars, oil was mainly used for lamps. Oil demand from vehicles with internal combustion engines began to rise after the introduction of assembly lines, and it picked up speed after World War II as vehicle purchases skyrocketed.

In the same way, the invention of the Bunsen burner opened up new possibilities for using natural gas in households. As pipelines came into place, gas became an important source of energy for home heating, cooking, water heaters and other appliances.

Year Coal% of energy mix Oil% of energy mix Natural gas% of energy mix
1950 44.2% 19.1% 7.3%
1960 37.0% 26.6% 10.7%
1970 25.7% 40.2% 14.5%
1980 23.8% 40.6% 16.3%
1990 24.4% 35.5% 18.4%
2000 22.5% 35.1% 19.7%

Coal lost the domestic heating market for gas and electricity, and the transportation market for oil.

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

The transition to renewable energy

Renewable energy sources are at the heart of the ongoing energy transition. As countries increase their efforts to limit emissions, solar and wind energy capacity are expanding globally.

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

Year Traditional biomass Renewable energy Fossil fuels Nuclear power
2000 10.2% 6.6% 77.3% 5.9%
2005 8.7% 6.5% 79.4% 5.4%
2010 7.7% 7.7% 79.9% 4.7%
2015 6.9% 9.2% 79.9% 4.0%
2020 6.7% 11.2% 78.0% 4.0%

In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the share of renewable energy increased by only 1.1%. But growth is accelerating – between 2010 and 2020, this figure was 3.5%.

Moreover, the current energy transition is unprecedented in both scope and speed, with climate targets requiring net zero emissions by 2050. This basically means a complete depletion of fossil fuels in less than 30 years and an inevitable rapid increase in production of renewable energy.

Capacity subsidies for renewable energy were on track to set an annual record in 2021 after a record year in 2020. In addition, the global energy conversion investment broke a record $ 755 billion in 2021.

History shows, however, that simply adding production capacity is not enough to facilitate an energy transition. Coal required mines, canals and railways; oil-intensive wells, pipelines and refineries; electricity generators and an intricate network.

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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