Energy transition is a hot topic right now. How do we plan for change, over what timescales, and how do we make sense of the direction of travel? But there have been numerous energy transitions to learn from in the past.
For millennia, biomass – primarily wood – was the dominant fuel, but over the past few hundred years we have transitioned into new dominant fuels such as water power, coal, oil, gas, and perhaps renewables.
Energy transitions build on the old fuels
What we know about these transitions is that they typically built on top of the old paradigm fuel rather than replacing it in the system.
They took decades or centuries to happen; and they often spurred great technical progress in associated technologies (e.g. the railways and the coal transition) or in incumbent technologies forced to compete at a new level (e.g. the sailing ship effect where sailing technology made much more rapid progress than ever before in the face of steam ship development that threatened its survival).
We learn but we learn carefully
Can we learn from these transitions to understand what is happening today, and perhaps even to predict what might happen? I would contend that we can learn some things but we are in a different kind of transition today so we must learn carefully.
Today's transition is not characterised by a new fuel
Firstly the transition today is not one characterised by a new fuel. Previous transitions have been driven by the new opportunities unlocked by a new fuel, and the technologies and markets that sought to exploit them.
Instead, today’s situation is driven by a societal need to reduce our emissions cheaply and safely – a new requirement of the whole system. And we can’t afford to simply leave existing fuels operating as they are – they need to either be largely decarbonised or replaced.
This implies a different type of transition.
Existing energy solutions threatened by new developments
We are already seeing sailing ship effects though – for example the vast strides in vehicle fuel efficiencies in recent years from auto manufacturers threatened by electric vehicles. We can expect to see more of this in other parts of the energy sector as change bites.
But we have also seen exceptional and unpredicted development of associated technologies such as renewables, batteries and fuel cells over recent years and can expect this progress to continue, but be accompanied by other new enabling technology.
The sun and the wind need no new supply chain
Lastly, the long timescales of previous transitions were driven by the need to develop new extractive supply chains for fuels, and to develop associated technologies able to take advantage of them. However, the newest fuels at play today are the sun and the wind which need no new supply chains.
Associated technologies have been heavily developed over recent years. On that basis, we might imagine that this transition will be less time-constrained than previous ones.
An uncharacteristic pace of development
And to add to this, some of the key enabling technologies, small renewables, fuel cells, digital control systems, big data and AI are developing at a pace not characteristic of large hardware or infrastructure systems.
This transition may well be driven at a speed more akin to software development than large capital infrastructure as a result, and if so, it could be more of a revolution than a transition; exciting and unpredictable, but uncoordinated and in danger of not achieving optimal outcomes for society.
Prospering from the energy revolution
At Innovate UK we think we’re into that revolution already, but we want to make sure that the UK comes out of it in good economic shape. That’s why the new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund programme is called - Prospering from the Energy Revolution.
It seeks to show that new approaches can deliver cheaper, cleaner and more reliable energy services that people want if we intelligently put together the latest mix of technology.
Funding demonstrator activity and a future pipeline
We will help fund demonstrator activity and a pipeline of future system designs, aided by the best expertise and research in the country. We want to develop leading integrated service provision in UK businesses, to unlock investment into future energy systems, to help build productive local systems and communities, and to generate learning and insight that can be acted on to ensure society gets a good deal out of this revolution.
Discussing energy transitions
If this has got you thinking, then the very timely FT summit on energy transitions strategies is worth a look. It will bring together a stellar lineup of speakers from right across the energy sector in June to debate how we can plan better for this revolution.
Bringing perspectives from fossil fuels, renewables, suppliers and disruptive innovators, it promises a day of insight into how thought-leaders across the sector are thinking about the change to our system.
Maybe I’ll see you there.
- Innovate UK Twitter @innovateuk
- You can find out more about the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund here
- For more Innovate UK videos subscribe to our YouTube channel here
- Sign up for email notifications on funding, connections & support opportunities
- Follow Innovate UK on Facebook
- Connect with Innovate UK on Linkedin