The Fossil Fuel Transition – A Very Short History

Fossil fuel energy is being replaced by its antithesis: it needs to be. 

Oil and Gas as genre

For millennia, primitive biomass – wood – was the dominant form of heat and light energy on this planet, only to be replaced in that role by fossil fuels from the 18th century onwards.

This new energy source also added mobility via oil-fired vehicles.

In the 1950s nuclear fuels, and hydro-power added niche forms of energy that leveled off at around 10% of the total supply.

So for most of modern human history the story of energy has been the story of thermolysis or burning and heat: wood was burnt, fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) were burnt, and nuclear power is a thermal process converting the decay of uranium atom nuclei into heat that generates power.

Today, almost a fifth of the way through the 21st century, 90% of our total energy system is still produced via thermal processes that first emerged over 300 years ago.

Over that period the energy system has powered the industrial revolution, and allowed the world to urbanise and release itself from a largely agrarian economy.

From isolated farms and individual graft to vast cities of technology and light.

That growth and progress has built a dependence on thermal fuels that is centuries-deep.

Any global energy shift must be a further game of centuries.

Thus goes the traditional narrative.

The story-telling genres that are used to describe world (thermal) energy tend toward the epic drama, charting the exploration and development adventures of countries, companies and charismatic leaders

So we have Daniel Yergin’s yarn on Middle East Oil and the creation of OPEC, The Prize, or more recently Russell Gold’s The Boom chronicling the rise of US shale.

Equally common is the supply-drama approach, emphasizing the vulnerability of the world’s energy production.

These range from Malcolm Simmons’s tome Twilight in the Desert, postulating an imminent decline in Saudi Arabia production (in 2005), or anxious annual scenarios mostly generated by the oil industry or its analysts such as the IEA, that describe the sudden disappearance of production if investment were to stop (overnight).

The oil price flutters up and down like the beat of a large but irregular heart on the back of this endless stock of real and imagined supply dramas from local wars and political disputes, to vivid industrial incidents, some made cinematic as in Deep-Water Horizon.

These genres have set our expectations of world energy: an ancient, extraction, engineering and construction marvel that yet remains vulnerable and fragile.

Energy thus remains a bit of a mystery: it comes from antique lands or remote machines far out to sea.

But now that we stand on energy’s heights and look around at what we have built, all of this is about to change, and quickly.

As we have noted before, when the oil industry discusses energy in terms of vulnerable supply and constant demand growth it is really attempting to shape reality rather than reflect it.

If the energy transition is left to epic exploration adventures or supply dramas world energy discussions will remain in a narrow fossil-fuel aesthetic, and concern itself only with self-absorbed sagas about hydro-carbon production.

It will continue to ignore the enduring impact of its historic activity, and paradoxically its increasing irrelevance for future energy.

It will avoid hard facts about the of inefficiency of fossil fuels imposed by universal laws of chemistry and physics

Our future energy system needs a far greater story than a primitive introductory chapter that describes hydrocarbon extraction and burning.

How best to tell story not of its past, but of its transition?

Well, we can try another tale.

Once upon a time there was an energy transition

The elder world of energy provided heat and light and mobility for over 7 billion people at its peak.

13 billion tonnes or so of oil equivalent.

This erstwhile marvel of 19th and 20th century engineering came to sharp halt in the 21st century however.

Just over a fifth of the way into that period its major limitations became clear.

There had always been disadvantages in the fossil fuel system, but three of them suddenly became unsustainable and quickly overwhelmed it:

1. Unsustainable Dominance

Since the 1970s world oil exports continued to be provided by only two concentrated blocs: OPEC and Russia. This periodically flared into supply dramas, forcing major consumers to dig into their pockets or look for energy saving ideas – there being no obvious energy alternatives to hand.

But over time this forced large consumers, who had access to other assets such as skilled labour, to divert their resources into alternative energy sources: the US developed its onshore oil shale resources, and China pivoted rapidly to power and transport electrification via huge investments in solar, wind and EV production.

The move by the US was a challenge to the two-bloc supply dominance; the move by China was far more serious – it challenged any enduring demand dominance.

Both acts were aimed at national energy independence: but China’s created a universal energy source as well as a local one.

At first this was most obvious via the tangible manufactured products of affordable EVs, solar panels and wind turbines.

But it was much more profound: at a stroke China, and other producers of EVs and panels and batteries and so on, had allowed global energy consumption to leap a fundamental species barrier: from the thermal to the electrical and thus the digital.

The yoke to the fossil fuel system was removed.

For a short while OPEC, Russia and the US continued to use their vast natural endowments to provide oil at competitive pricing even as its consumption fell.

But this highlighted fossil fuel’s second major limitation.

2. Unsustainable Waste

From the very first molecule of crude oil ever burnt, in the ancient past by accident, about half a dozen molecules of carbon dioxide were produced and emitted to the atmosphere.

This chemical by-product was little noticed in the early era of fossil fuels.

In fact, throughout the oil industry’s relatively brief era of dominance gas of any type, even natural combustible gas, was seen as an unwanted by-product, often flared off or just re-injected to create more oil.

But CO2 had no such utility. It was difficult to capture, difficult to dissolve and difficult to burn.

The oil and gas industry had no capacity to contain its central waste product: such investments that were tried half-heartedly in carbon capture and storage (CCS) were ineffective.

Crude oil in the wild was burnt with few constraints by global consumers until CO2 levels breached over 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, about 50% above the levels before modern industry began.

The global average temperature responded accordingly, because CO2 is a greenhouse gas, able to trap heat radiated by the earth, increasing atmospheric temperature and also its water-carrying capacity.

Worldwide the average temperature rose by 1 degree Celsius from 1880 until about 2020: two thirds of that change occurring since 1975.

CO2 levels, pumped out at their peak at 40 billion tonnes per year, were taking the planet to levels of rapid heating that had never been encountered before.

It was that rate of change that was most alarming: it raised the entire planet’s temperature by one degree in a matter of decades, and continuing that trend set off immense non-linear forces of nature.

Absent the removal of fossil fuels, there was no other method of controlling the process.

By 2020 temperatures were increasing by about 0.1C every 5 years, and the climatic effects intensifying: more floods, droughts, storms and relentlessly rising sea-levels.

This lead to policy moves and political upheavals when natural events started to cascade uncontrollably. Once in a millennia events happened annually; it was as if nature had been provoked into bringing back ancient beasts of divine strength.

A variety of political acts were belatedly imposed to hasten fossil fuels from the energy landscape.

And these were partially effective – but it was the essential nature of fossil fuels themselves that drove them from dominance.

3. Unsustainable Loss

The defining image of the fossil fuel energy system was its extraction and combustion mega-structures and an urban-thermal landscape: mines, pipelines, offshore platforms, steam towers, vast distribution and tankage terminals and internal combustion transport systems.

No wonder it often led to dystopian visions of a future world where progress meant being slaves to a emission-shrouded soul-less machine-based future.

But there was a major irony at the heart of this muscular, solid system: it was mostly a mirage, two thirds of all the energy it produced was unusable.

The second law of thermodynamics, a brute immovable physical law of the universe, provided a hard limit to the efficiency of any earth-bound thermal system.

The burning of fuels is a primitive process, unleashing lots of chaotic heat and light, which can only be partially managed and targeted toward energy services such as power or mobility.

This plays right into the hands of the second law which notes that over time entropy, or disorder, in any system always grows. The law covers any defined system: from the universe itself to a gas boiler.

That disorder often manifests as heat, or molecular disorder.

All energetic systems – biological, chemical, digital – exhibit this feature. But thermal ones are particularly prone and profligate: the vast cooling towers of thermal fuel plants venting to air give this game away.

No matter the ingenuity of the thermal engineer, the effective efficiency limit for a giant thermal power-plant or small family (internal combustion) car will always be about 35%.

All that tangible steel and concrete was actually more myth than machinery: it converted only a third of the energy it consumed into anything usable.

The rest was gobbled up in the chaotic maw of the surrounding universe as unworkable heat.

By 2020 the world consumed about 150,000 TWh of energy equivalent (the same amount as 13 billion tonnes of oil – energy can be described in many ways).

About 20% of that amount produced electricity or 30,000TWh.

Only 10% of that energy was provided by wind and solar energy directly, but it was growing very quickly at about 15% per year, or ten times as fast as fossil fuel power growth.

And solar / wind energy created electricity at near 100% efficiency – meaning that every unit provided by wind and solar removed three units of thermal fuel requirements from the grid.

Every week that passed more and more units of wind/solar energy replaced thermal requirements gnawing away faster and faster at incremental growth.

Until something magical happened: demand for fossil fuel growth in power (and transport and later heat) reached the number zero.

Mathematically the first derivative of change had reached a local maximum: commonly fossil fuel demand had peaked; economically the commodity had entered structural decline.

The forces of change finally tipped by consumers switching to alternatives, aided by those gradual policies and national strategies – suddenly – moved the balance.

The dematerialization of energy accelerated from that point: fossil fuel power structures steadily faded from the scene – by 2050 the world had moved to over 85% wind, solar and battery storage power, removing the need for billions of tonnes per year of oil, gas and coal; the transformed grid simultaneously started to power the world’s vehicle fleets as EVs comprised over 85% of the world’s passenger car market  in the same year.

Energy (smart, electrical energy) demand grew quickly, but primary fuel consumption plummeted as fossil fuels were diverted from the prime energy drivers.

In retrospect there was an inevitability about the energy transition – an obviousness.

Geo-politically fossil fuels were already reaching breaking point; climatically they were a sudden disaster and technologically they were too primitive, extravagant and profligate for the world energy needs ahead.

So what caused the tipping point was not the geopolitics, nor the climate impact. These would have eventually caused it no doubt.

But it was the fundamental limitations of the fuels themselves that brought them down quickly: they were just not as cheap, universal or creative as the alternative energy sources that rapidly replaced them.

Consumers, industrial and individual, switched rapidly and exponentially, and great S curves of swift adoption followed: in power, in transport and in harder-to-crack sectors such as marine and heating.

To provide enduring, efficient and safe energy for the planet’s current and future billions, fossil fuels were a non-starter.

They were starting to look out of their time: an anachronous system of supply dangerously misaligned with the very different needs, fears and expectations of future generations of demand.

Despite fossil fuel’s incumbent strength, it proved unable to negotiate with chemistry and physics.

Thus fossil fuel’s preliminary, introductory chapter in the long narrative of world energy was over. It remained a useful but tightly regulated niche until it fell below 10% of total primary energy by the century’s end.

The political turmoil caused the waning of the fossil fuel age is another tale worth telling: but compared to the climate shocks that began in the 2020s they are a minor saga.

The next energy system would be fossil fuel’s antithesis: atomic not molecular; conversion not combustion; scalable not inflexible; efficient not wasteful, manufactured not extracted. Carbon-free not carbon-rich.

From mega-structures and urban-thermal buildings, to micro-structures and global-energy apps.

Available equally, not exclusive.

Prepared for the centuries ahead.

World Energy Independence Day

It is getting easier to write a viable scenario, such as above, about the energy transition.

Whilst a scenario, the near-term numbers above are actuals (even the 2050 numbers are defensible) and the technologies of wind and solar and lithium-ion batteries and storage and charging infrastructure are every bit as real and effective as the historic parallel thermal system that co-exists, with them, for now.

Many companies today talk about digital twins: in energy the digital equivalent of an offshore platform with all its information coded by scanners into digital files,

But the thermal energy system remains largely analogue: a substantial but off-line, single-scale entity.

It provides what information scholars might call semantic information: that is, it gives broad descriptions such as the system’s capacity and energy content.

But it does not provide detailed codifiable bit-sized data that can be manipulated and quickly improved.

In fossil fuels most information is used to define its holding systems – power plants, cars – on the basis of bulk details of its molecular parameters (energy density, flash point, volatility). These are quite coarse pieces of information, compared to the quality of digital systems.

Thus there has been little substantial development for decades: sure gas plants and cars have become more efficient, but not that much, not Moore-Law type improvements.

Conventional vehicle fuel efficiency is improving by about 1% pa, yet vehicle weight and fuel-efficiency policies may undermine even this.

But as energy jumps the species barrier to electricity – quite suddenly – it becomes connected and digitized.

At a stroke energy suddenly releases massive information content: the battery charge in an EV (effectively the amount of fuel in its tank) can be accessed and changed remotely.

Wi-fi can be used to charge buses docked overnight or they release energy back to a monitored grid via constantly improving algorithms.

And so on.

There is no such (cost-effective) equivalent, at this level, in the analog fuel system, even with instruments and sensors.

The first energy transition from the pre-industrial era to the present urban-industrial one was a serious engineering affair.

That history and tone still resonates.

But the information industry was also once just a serious corporate-based system dealing with main-frames and punch-cards.

Information technology (IT) is now mostly a global common good, with smart-phones and wi-fi ubiquitous even in remote world zones.

Energy’s move to digital will follow this informational dynamic.

Distributed and digital it will start to learn and develop and create playful features of its own.

As energy is created more equally, via wind, solar, batteries and manufactured goods – and so bought globally at reasonable cost rather than extracted and rationed, it will be almost instantly more creative because it is more open, transparent and level.

We should be more confident about this transition; because if we want to shape reality we have to imagine the future more quickly.

Every country will soon enjoy their Energy Independence Day: when greater than 50% of their energy use is not imported but manufactured, or at least assembled, and deployed locally.

Perhaps this should become a global tracking indicator.

We have barely begun to see the world of globally-connected energy apps: but soon they will be everywhere, leveraging all the new information that digital energy systems will create.

So rather than discuss simple digital twins, it may be more accurate to say that today’s industrial energy structures are just the initial thermal analogues of the ultimate digital systems replacing them.

Singular thermal plants making way for distributed panels and turbines; mobile power plants, once known as cars, making way for large mobile digital devices, initially called electric vehicles.

The original information technologies were offline analog information machines.

In energy today we have barely achieved the abacus.

The thermal system has been a giant work-around until we created something far smarter.

Energy started out in the chaotic universe as particles and atomic structures with natural energetic configurations – we are finally getting back toward that original idea.

And building a universal energy system that will be sustainable for centuries ahead.

This is an energy system that comes with enduring hope: globally available and connected, free from catastrophic atmospheric pollutants, and dematerializing the planet’s activities.

Energy’s new age.

The energy transition is underway.

This is its brief history and likely future.


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