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ENERGY TRANSITIONS IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: SOME THOUGHTS Martin V. Melosi University of Houston
A Standard Definition The concept of ‘energy transitions' is based on the notion that a single energy source, or group of sources, dominated the market during a particular period or era, eventually to be challenged and then replaced by another major source or sources.
From Emmett Duffy, “The Next Energy Transition” (2007) (via Cutler Cleveland)
From Robert Bryce, “Wood to Coal to Oil to Natural Gas and Nuclear: The Slow Pace of Energy Transitions” (Aug., 2010)
Periodization Construct Period I (pre-1820): dominated by human/animal power, wind-, wood-, and waterpower. Period II (1820-1914): Industrial era dependent on wood, waterpower, and utlimately coal. Period III (1914-9145): Oil emerges as a leading fuel; electrical power production dramatically increases. Period IV (1945-1970s): A ‘postindustrial’ economy dependent on oil, punctuated by the 1970s ‘energy crisis.’ Period V: (1970s-?): Post-energy crisis America, still tied to carbon with some rumblings for change in later years.
Concerns: Energy Transitions Concept Too Rational? • Concept utilized too narrowly? • Is it a more fluid process than rigidly ordered? • What are its quantitative and qualitative characteristics? • Need to contextualize energy transitions.
Paraphrased from Coping With Abundance (1985) The United States was blessed with abundant energy sources. Whether immediately exploitable or only potentially so, these sources were vital. Abundance affected the way Americans used energy, how businesses developed and marketed it, and how government established policies about it. While bestowing many benefits, the array of energy sources posed problems of choice. The luxury of choicewas preferable to the necessity to choose, but it often proved a curse when policy makers tried to arrive at coherent energy strategies. The energy history of the United States has been an ongoing effort to cope with abundance.
More Concerns • Regional versus national issues. • Dominant energy source or dominant fuel? • Any such things as a ‘single-source’ transition? • Fuels and flexible use. • Energy transitions and path dependency.
Path Dependency • Path dependence can provide perspective on the serviceable life of technologies and the constraint of choices available to later generations of decision makers. • According to economic historian Louis Cain: “Choices made in the first generation eliminate some alternatives (yet to be discovered) that will be available...in the second generation.”
Conclusions • Will there be a post-carbon transition and when? • What about bridge fuels? • What about conservation as a source of energy? • What about energy and technical efficiencies?