Why this Metric?
Energy consumption has skyrocketed since the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of fossil fuels. However, with them come lethal amounts of air pollution and excess greenhouse gases that are disturbing our climate.
We therefore need to transform our global energy mix, moving away from fossil fuels and developing the infrastructure to harness renewable technologies and nuclear power. In 2019, fossil fuels still generated 79% of our power worldwide.
Exploring the Metric
We first moved away from biomass in the 1850s as the Industrial Revolution began to gather steam. Coal became the staple of fuels around the world for nearly a century before oil took over in the 1950s. Oil remains the most heavily consumed fossil fuel today, but the lower-carbon natural gas has made a place for itself and is likely to keep growing.
In the race to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the rise of renewables offers a much-needed alternative. Prices for solar and wind power have dropped tremendously, giving them a competitive advantage over fossil fuels in many parts of the world. However, their intermittent nature, out-dated energy grids and the transition costs of infrastructure will continue to limit their adoption. Tipping the balance will require government intervention in the form of economic incentives and legislation.
Where the Numbers Come From
The Global Energy Mix chart gives a snapshot of the power mix’s evolution over recent history. The data from 1800 to 1965 was compiled by Vaclav Smil’s Energy Transitions: Global and National Perspectives. Post 1965, the data comes from the BP Statistical Review.
The world is relying on both renewable energy and carbon capture to decarbonize the world’s power generation. While renewables saw record levels of installation in the past couple of years, the government incentives it needs to take over are coming through too slowly to fix climate change.
Hydrogen energy has also been hailed as a panacea, but scientists have pointed out its flaws.
The advent of artificial intelligence might be a game changer, as it will allow the development of smart grids with better demand forecasts. This would help make up for the intermittent nature of renewables and optimize energy stockage and deployment. Generally speaking, machine learning optimization could reduce our energy consumption across many sectors.
This article was written by Owen Mulhern. Cover photo by NASA on Unsplash
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