Energy. It’s kind of a big deal. And yet, it’s something we rarely pay much thought to. Like the Internet, you only freak out when you lose access to it.
But in reality, whether it comes in the form of food, heat, electricity, or any number of its many forms, energy is the driving force behind the rise of man. Every time humanity mastered a new form of energy (fire, coal, oil, and soon solar), progress accelerates and populations skyrocket.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a quick jog through history.
Energy and the rise of humans
Early humans were hunter-gatherers. They generated the carbohydrate energy they needed to survive by improving their hunting techniques, expanding to new territory, and later, through mastering the use of fire to cook and better digest their hunted meat and gathered plants. This lifestyle allowed early humans to expand to a population of around one million worldwide.
Later, around 7,000 BCE, humans learned to domesticate and plant seeds that allowed them to grow excess carbohydrates (energy). And by storing those carbs in animals (feeding herds during the summers and eating them during the winters), mankind was able to generate enough energy to end its nomadic lifestyle. This allowed them to concentrate in larger groups of villages, towns, and cities; and to develop the building blocks of technology and shared culture. Between 7,000 BCE to about 1700 CE, the world population grew to one billion.
During the 1700s, the use of coal exploded. In the UK, the British were forced to mine coal for energy use, due to massive deforestation. Fortunately for world history, coal burned much hotter than wood, not only helping northern nations to live through harsh winters, but also allowing them to greatly increase the amount of metal they produced, and most important, fuel the invention of the steam engine. The global population grew to two billion between the 1700s and 1940.
Finally, oil (petroleum) happened. While it entered use on a limited basis around the 1870s and expanded between 1910-20s with the mass production of the Model T, it really took off after WWII. It was an ideal transportation fuel that enabled the domestic growth of cars and decreased the costs of international trade. Petroleum was also transformed into cheap fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that, in part, launched the Green Revolution, reducing world hunger. Scientists used it to establish the modern pharmaceutical industry, inventing a range of medicines that cured many fatal illnesses. Industrialists used it to create a range of new plastics and clothing products. Oh yeah, and you can burn oil for electricity.
In all, oil represented a bonanza of cheap energy that enabled humanity to grow, build, and fund a variety of new industries and cultural advancements. And between 1940 and 2015, world population has exploded to over seven billion.
Energy in context
What you just read was a simplified version of about 10,000 years of human history (you’re welcome), but hopefully the message I’m trying to get across is clear: whenever we learn to control a new, cheaper, and more abundant source of energy, humanity grows technologically, economically, culturally, and demographically.
Following this train of thought, the question needs to be asked: What happens when humanity enters a future world filled with nearly free, limitless, and clean renewable energy? What will this world look like? How will it reshape our economies, our culture, our way of life?
This future (only two to three decades away) is inevitable, but also one that humanity has never experienced. These questions and more are what this Future of Energy series will try to answer.
But before we can explore what a renewable energy future will look like, we first have to understand why we’re leaving the age of fossil fuels. And what better way to do that than with an example we’re all familiar with, a source of energy that’s cheap, abundant, and supremely dirty: coal.
Coal: a symptom of our fossil fuel addiction
It’s cheap. It’s easy to extract, ship and burn. Based on today’s consumption levels, there are 109 years of proven reserves buried beneath the Earth. The largest deposits are in stable democracies, mined by dependable companies with decades of experience. The infrastructure (power plants) are already in place, most of which will last for several more decades before needing to be replaced. On the face of it, coal sounds like a great option to power our world.
However, it does have one drawback: it’s dirty as hell.
Coal fed power plants are one of the largest and dirtiest sources of carbon emissions currently polluting our atmosphere. That’s why coal use has been in a slow decline in much of North America and Europe—building more coal power generating capacity simply isn’t compatible with the developed world’s climate change reduction targets.
That said, coal is still amongst the largest sources of electricity for the US (at 20 percent), UK (30 percent), China (70 percent), India (53 percent), and many other nations. Even if we switched completely to renewables, it could take decades to replace the slice of energy pie coal now represents. That’s also why the developing world is so reluctant to stop its coal use (especially China and India), as doing so would likely mean slamming the brakes on their economies and throwing hundreds of millions back into poverty.
So instead of closing existing coal plants, many governments are experimenting with making them run cleaner. This involves a variety of experimental technologies that revolve around the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS): burning coal and scrubbing the gas of dirty carbon emissions before it reaches the atmosphere.
The slow death of fossil fuels
Here’s the catch: installing CCS tech into existing coal plants can cost up to half a billion dollars per plant. That would make the electricity generated from these plants far more expensive than traditional (dirty) coal plants. “How much more expensive?” you ask. The Economist reported on a new, 5.2 billion dollar US Mississippi CCS coal power plant, whose average cost per kilowatt is $6,800—that’s compared to about $1,000 from a gas-fired plant.
If CCS were rolled out to all of the 2300 coal-fired power plants worldwide, the cost could be upwards of a trillion dollars.
In the end, while the coal industry’s PR team actively promotes the potential of CCS to the public, behind closed doors, the industry knows that if they ever did invest in becoming green, it would put them out of business—it would raise the costs of their electricity to a point where renewables would immediately become the cheaper option.
At this point, we could spend another few paragraphs explaining why this cost issue is now leading to the rise of natural gas as coal’s replacement—seeing as it is cleaner to burn, creates no toxic ash or residue, is more efficient, and generates more electricity per kilogram.
But over the next two decades, the same existential dilemma coal is now facing, natural gas will experience as well—and it’s a theme you’ll read often in this series: the key difference between renewables and carbon-based energy sources (like coal and oil) is that one is a technology, while the other is a fossil fuel. A technology improves, it becomes cheaper and provides a greater return over time; whereas with fossil fuels, in most cases, their value rises, stagnates, becomes volatile, and finally declines over time.
The tipping point to a new energy world order
2015 marked the first year where the world economy grew while carbon emissions didn’t—this decoupling of the economy and carbon emissions is largely the result of companies and governments investing more in renewables than carbon-based energy generation.
And this is just the beginning. The reality is we’re only a decade away from renewable technologies like solar, wind, and others reaching a point where they become the cheapest, most efficient option. That tipping point will represent the beginning of a new age in energy generation, and potentially, a new age in human history.
In just a few short decades, we will enter a future world filled with nearly free, limitless, and clean renewable energy. And it will change everything.
Over the course of this series on the Future of Energy, you’ll learn the following: Why the age of dirty fuels is coming to an end; why oil is set to trigger yet another economic collapse in the next decade; why electric cars and solar energy are going to lead us into a post-carbon world; how other renewables like wind and algae, as well as experimental thorium and fusion energy, will take up a close second to solar; and then finally, we will explore what our future world of truly limitless energy will look like. (Hint: it’s going to look pretty epic.)
But before we start talking seriously about renewables, we first have to talk seriously about today’s most important source of energy: oil.