Connected for COP26: Energy transitions: the geological story

This article was originally published as part of the Geological Society of London Blog.

Professor Mike Stephenson on behalf of the Geological Society. 

Looking back over history it is clear that energy systems emerge, become dominant, and then fade. Currently, in parts of the world, we are witnessing a transition from an economy driven by hydrocarbons to an economy supported by renewable energy. These transitions are initiated by, but also cause, significant changes for people and societies. Geoscience has had a big role to play in most major energy transitions – coal, iron ore and limestone determined the geography, pace and course of industrialisation during the 1800s. Pictured below is The Iron Bridge in Shropshire, thought to be one of the first structures of the industrial revolution, whose location was dictated by the nearby coal, iron ore and limestone resources.

It may seem at first glance that geoscience will have a smaller role in the present transition, but as discussed at the 2019 Bryan Lovell Meeting held at the Geological Society, there is abundant evidence that some of our most ambitious decarbonisation targets will be unachievable without incorporating subsurface energy and storage. Technologies such as geothermal, grid scale hydrogen storage and carbon capture and storage will be essential.

In this blog, the third in a series about how the geosciences can support decarbonisation, I discuss the geology of energy transitions, and considers how understanding their history may reveal insights about how future transitions will unfold and develop.

The anatomy of energy transitions

One of the speakers at the Lovell meeting, the energy economist Benjamin Sovacool, illustrated the rise and fall of global supply of different fuels: how wood or biomass were supplanted by coal, and then coal by crude oil, using the figure below from his published research.

According to Sovacool’s research, a transition can be said to have occurred if the incoming fuel reaches 20% to 50% of the market, which can sometimes occur through a series of smaller changes. The ascent of oil relied on the switch from animal power to internal combustion engines, the conversion of steam engines to diesel on ships and locomotives, the adaptation of coal boilers to oil boilers for electric power, and finally the exchange of wood and coal stoves for gas furnaces in homes.

Sovacool explained that these innovations move out from a core country (the innovative first adopter), to the rim countries (early adopter) to the periphery (late adopters). In the case of the replacement of traditional wood to coal, the core was Britain, while the rim countries were Germany, France and the Netherlands. The speed at which these energy transitions took place varied from 160 years in the case of Britain to 102 years in Germany. Change starts as small scale technologies and diversity of design, progressing through improvements and economies of scale, and then finally to full industrial adoption. Geology has played its part in past transitions by supplying fuel.

Feedbacks: accelerating the energy transition

As well as constituent changes, energy transitions are accelerated by positive feedbacks that cause fuel use to rapidly grow. Perhaps the simplest example is the steam engine and its relationship with coal. During the industrial revolution, steam engines that burned coal replaced water and wind power, and became the dominant source of industrial power from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, when steam turbines and internal combustion engines replaced steam engines. Steam power could then power pumps that allowed water to be removed from coal mines which, in turn, allowed more coal to be mined.

Similar feedbacks could be said to have accelerated the rate at which oil and gas were taken up as fuels. The concentration of cheap gas in Pennsylvania (USA) helped Pittsburgh to develop as an industrial centre in the 1890s, particularly in steel. The development of industrial automobile production in the early years of the 20th century was a good use for steel and oil and steel for rotary drilling equipment helped to hugely increase the production of oil between 1900 and 1920.

Inertia: barriers to the energy transition

As mentioned previously, transitions begin with experimentation before scaling up, and then technology becoming accepted as industry standard. At this point, any further change becomes difficult because technology is ‘locked’ in to the system. At this stage the transition can suffer from ‘inertia’ whereby change becomes more challenging or expensive than the status quo.

Policy makers can play an active role in enabling change by developing effective policy instruments. The global expert on energy futures, the International Energy Agency (IEA) takes a clear view on this[1]: policies are needed to support long term transition, and analysis of ‘…short-term macroeconomic and market trends, which may accelerate – or impede – the transition towards a lower carbon energy future…’. Though these market trends are difficult to predict, it is clear from previous transitions that appropriate regulation has been able to deliver change.

Policy and transition

The Lovell meeting ended with an excellent session organised by the Geological Society’s policy team lead by Flo Bullough. Perhaps the strongest message from the session was that the right policy instruments are needed to remove impediments to the transition and these featured strongly in the policy briefing note. A key recommendation to develop the UK’s geothermal resources for example requires a Contract for Difference (CFD) for heat, and licensing to regulate subsurface heat to ensure that companies’ investments are protected and that subsurface heat is used sustainably.

On a final note, predictions about transitions away from the hydrocarbon economy have been made before, and been spectacularly wrong. An element of this is so-called supply side ‘peak oil’ which has been on the horizon for at least as long as I have been a geologist. One of the earliest of these predictions was one from the US Geological Survey which in 1908 predicted total exhaustion of US oil by 1927!


Read the rest of the blog series here.