Energy Transitions Are Slow

This problem—replacing 87% of the existing global energy supply with clean energy and building the developing world’s energy system at the same time—involves a massive change in infrastructure. In the United States alone, there is around $6 trillion of long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure which will have to be replaced, (not counting short-lived assets such as 250 million vehicles and millions of commercial and residential furnaces). Power generation and extraction facilities are by far the largest components of this infrastructure. In 2008 in the United States alone there were 6,413 power plants generating 1,075 gigawatts of power, 525,000 crude oil wells, 51,000 miles of crude oil pipelines, and 116,000 miles of refined product pipelines. There were 478,562 gas wells, 20,215 gas gathers, 500 gas processors, 319,208 miles of gas pipeline, and 1.2 million miles of LNG distribution pipelines. All of this has to be replaced. And the United States, although large, is just one country. The global figures are likely to be four or five times as large.

Replacing all of this with renewable energy is not going to happen fast. Even a 100-year horizon—about the longest timeframe we calculated above—is not that long in terms of the needed transformation. To get a sense of how long the process of replacing the fossil fuel infrastructure will take, we can look to the history of energy transitions.

The two major energy technology transitions so far have been the transition from traditional biomass to coal and steam and the transition from coal and steam to oil, gas, and electricity.11 The process of transition was slow. It took about 130 years from the first use of coal until it became the dominant source of energy, and it took about 80 years for other energy sources—petroleum and gas—to displace coal.

The pace of transition, if anything, might be slower in the future than it was in the past. The system is more built up, there are more people that will be displaced, and people are more dependent on energy so they are less tolerant of disruptions. And we will be replacing the current fossil fuel system with something that may not work quite as well (we would not do it but for the environmental benefits). Past transitions replaced old fuels with better fuels. The history of energy transitions may not tell us what the future will bring, but there is little reason given this history to be optimistic that we can make the shift quickly.

Unfortunately, many strong advocates of action on climate change fail to recognize the problem and instead seem to view the needed transformation as relatively easy if only we had the willpower. For example, Al Gore, in a 2008 address on climate change stated as follows:

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of our electricity from renewal energy and truly clean carbon- free sources within 10 years.

This is sheer fantasy. Actually it is worse than fantasy because it perpetuates the myth that the necessary energy transition can be accomplished in a short time period with just a little gumption. It gives hope to those who want to wait. If we can switch to clean energy in just 10 years, there is less need to act now given that we may have as long as 100 years to make the transformation. The vice president claimed that he was purposefully being ambitious, expanding the set of possibilities, and challenging us. Perhaps a bit of realism is in order.

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