• “Energy transition” concept questioned by Financial Times

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

An article in the Financial Times has examined the idea that there has never been an “energy transition” in history – that, rather, there are simply additions to energy production. The argument is probably best summed up by a graph in an associated paper by the Resources for the Future organisation, which in its second figure shows how, from biomass and waste being the primary fuels for centuries, coal was added in the mid-19th century, after which oil came along, then gas, followed by hydropower, nuclear, and finally (modern) renewables. While the share of each energy source in the energy mix has varied considerably, the absolute amount of energy generated from each source has mostly only increased, giving the argument its weight. On a global scale, the argument generally holds, which has important implications for climate change and markets. However, the global scale also obscures what could be considered regional energy transitions. The most famous case is probably the decline of coal firing in the UK – from having the fuel synonymous with its industrial revolution, last year the kingdom went three days without using any coal at all, and is due to phase out its coal fired plants by 2025 (unless some become equipped with carbon capture and storage). Much of western Europe is following suit. Another example is Japan’s abrupt end of nuclear power generation following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. In a different way, the rise and fall of whale oil could be seen as an energy transition if ‘oil’ were to be disaggregated into its sources. The mid-19th century boom in whale oil was all but over by the dawn of the 20th century, having been replaced by cheaper petroleum, which was an adequate, more available, and in many ways a better substitute. These are much more likely to be the parameters affecting a future energy transition – cost, availability, reliability, and environmental performance – than a reluctance to forgo any power sources.