Visualize the history of energy transitions
The history of energy transitions
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Over the past 200 years, the way we get our energy has changed dramatically.
These changes were driven by innovations such as the steam engine, oil lamps, internal combustion engines, and the large-scale use of electricity. The shift from a predominantly agrarian world economy to an industrial economy has required new sources to provide more efficient energy inputs.
Today’s energy transition is fueled by the realization that avoiding the catastrophic effects of climate change requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This infographic provides historical context for the continued 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 for heating homes and cooking, while relying on muscle power, wind and water mills to grind grain. Transportation was facilitated by the use of carts driven by horses or other animals.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, prices for firewood and charcoal soared due to shortages. These were driven by increased consumption by households and industries as economies grew and became more sophisticated.
Therefore, industrializing economies like the UK needed a new, cheaper source of energy. They turned to coal, marking the start of the first major energy transition.
|Year||Traditional biomass % of energy mix||Coal % of energy mix|
As the use and production of coal increased, the cost of producing it decreased due to economies of scale. At the same time, technological advances and adaptations have brought about new ways of using coal.
The steam engine – one of the key technologies behind the Industrial Revolution – relied heavily on coal, and homeowners used coal for heating their homes and cooking. Evidenced by the growth in the share of coal in the global energy mix, which rose 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 almost a century later that oil became a major source of energy.
Prior to the mass production of automobiles, kerosene was primarily used for lamps. Demand for oil from internal combustion engine vehicles began to climb after the introduction of assembly lines, and it took off after World War II as vehicle purchases soared.
Likewise, the invention of the Bunsen burner opened up new possibilities for the use of natural gas in households. With the introduction of pipelines, gas has become a major energy source for home heating, cooking, water heaters and other appliances.
|Year||Coal % of energy mix||Oil % of energy mix||Natural gas % of energy mix|
Coal lost the home heating market to gas and electricity, and the transportation market to oil.
Despite this, it has become the most important source of electricity production in the world and still represents more than a third of the world’s electricity production today.
The transition to renewable energies
Renewable energies are at the heart of the ongoing energy transition. As countries step up efforts to reduce emissions, solar and wind power capabilities are expanding globally.
Here is how the share of renewables in the global energy mix has evolved over the past two decades:
|Year||Traditional biomass||Renewable energies||Fossil fuels||nuclear power|
During the decade 2000-2010, the share of renewable energies only increased by 1.1%. But growth is accelerating: between 2010 and 2020, this figure was 3.5%.
Furthermore, the current energy transition is unprecedented in scale and speed, with climate goals requiring net-zero emissions by 2050. This essentially means a complete phase-out of fossil fuels in less than 30 years and a rapid increase inevitable in the production of renewable energy. .
Renewable energy capacity additions were on track to set an annual record in 2021, following a record year in 2020. Additionally, global investments in the energy transition hit a record high 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 wells, pipelines and refineries; electricity required generators and a complex network.
Similarly, a complete transition to low-carbon sources requires massive investments in natural resources, infrastructure and grid storage, as well as changes in our energy consumption habits.