A new study, published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, suggests that the global reliance on fossil fuels could be phased out within a decade or two. This may seem ludicrously optimistic, but Benjamin Sovacool, a professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex, points to examples of the recent past that show that the next revolution in energy production could happen sooner than we think – but only if we force change through.
“Moving to a new, cleaner energy system would require significant shifts in technology, political regulations, tariffs and pricing regimes, and the behavior of users and adopters,” Sovacool said in a statement. “A lot of stars have to align all at once.”
Technological leaps in the past can sometimes seem slow compared to the speed they happen today, and energy production is no exception to this. The transition from burning wood to combusting coal took up to 160 years in Europe, for example.
Is nuclear power the answer? hxdyl/Shutterstock
However, the author points out that these “big changes” are actually the sum result of a variety of little changes that were happening at the same time. The rise of oil at the start of the 20th century, for example, didn’t just happen because oil was discovered. The switch to internal combustion engines for private vehicles, the social rejection of electric vehicles, and the conversion of steam engines to diesel engines all helped to drive demand.
Similarly, the presence of renewables or controlled nuclear fission doesn’t automatically mean they will proliferate around the world. But have we reached the point where fossil fuels are being comprehensively replaced by them?
Recent examples cited in the study show that renewables and nuclear power are beginning to suddenly spread across the world as a viable energy production method. For example, Ontario, Canada, dropped its reliance on coal rather quickly between 2003 and 2014, from 25 percent to zero.
There’s also the example of France’s nuclear power program. When in its infancy in 1970, it supplied just 4 percent of the nation’s energy; today, it’s supplying 75 percent.
Other examples are easy to find. Scotland, for example, now produces over 57 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Morocco will soon have a 24/7 concentrated solar power (CSP) plant that will be able to supply the entire region. Sweden is on track to become the world’s first fossil fuel-free nation.
Even the International Energy Agency (IEA) declared that over a quarter of the world will be powered by renewable energy by 2020, and the Paris agreement shows that the political will to act exists. So is the next energy revolution as inevitable as this study suggests?
Solar power has seen a huge production spike in the last decade. crystal51/Shutterstock
Yes, but there’s a catch. As the study points out, all these renewable energy success stories feature huge governmental intervention, massive shifts in public opinion, and gargantuan collaborative efforts. Not all nations have an affinity for all three of these caveats.
Things aren’t as clear cut as these examples seem, either. The entire world could be powered by solar power in the Sahara, but the region is notoriously unstable and unsuitable for such an effort. Sweden may be aiming to be fossil fuel-free, but it won’t help itself by reducing its nuclear power capacity. Scotland may be increasing its renewable energy capacity, but it’s also investing in the North Sea oil fields.