Natural gas, solar power and data-driven efficiency are making big gains, but history shows that the shift away from coal and oil won’t be fast or neat
The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, a 110-megawatt solar thermal power facility, near Tonopah, Nev., June 26, 2014. Officials with the project say they expect it to start generating electricity this October PHOTO: JAMEY STILLINGS
Energy innovation and energy “transition” are today’s hot topics. President Barack Obama aims to have 20% of U.S. electricity come from wind and solar by 2030. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has gone one better: A few weeks ago, she pledged that, within 10 years of her taking office, there would be enough renewable electricity to power every home in America. That would certainly be a sprint, given that wind and solar now account for less than 6% of our electricity.
Some are more cautious about such prospects. Bill Gates recently committed $2 billion to “breakthrough” energy innovation because he is convinced that current technologies can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions—and the human contribution to climate change—only at costs that he has called “beyond astronomical.”
One thing is certain: Over the next few months, with the approach of December’s big climate-change conference in Paris—more than 190 countries are expected to attend—the discussion will grow more intense over how quickly the planet can move away from coal, oil and natural gas and toward a low-carbon future.
Such energy transitions are nothing new. They have been going on for more than two centuries. They have been transformative and undoubtedly will be again—but if history teaches anything, it is that they don’t happen fast.
In 1824, a young French scientist and engineer named Sadi Carnot published a paper on “the motive force of fire.” His aim was to explain the workings of an amazing half-century-old invention: James Watt’s steam engine. His explanation—the “Carnot cycle”—is still taught to engineers. Carnot was convinced that this new technology was a critical factor in Britain’s defeat of France in the Napoleonic wars, and he wanted to ensure that his countrymen could gain the same technological mastery.
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