We are in the early stages of a seismic energy transition. Such transitions coincide with major shifts in human well-being and the health of the Earth’s natural systems. The main storyline of improvements in the overall human condition since about 1800 has two concurrent threads. The first is the massive increase in the extraction and processing of energy and materials, and the inescapable release of wastes, which has dramatically deteriorated the natural systems that support all life on the planet. Climate change is the penultimate example. The second thread is the persistent inequity in life opportunities within and among nations, including the disproportionate sharing of costs and benefits from economic growth, pollution, and climate change. The disparity in access to clean, affordable energy services is a key driver of inequity.
Enter Visualizing Energy, a new project of the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability. It is an open access, interdisciplinary science communication project that aims to increase actionable knowledge about a sustainable and just energy transition. The project knits data analysis, visualizations, and the written word into stories that reveal how our energy system can be transformed to reduce inequity, steer humanity from climate disaster, improve health and other social outcomes, and lead to healthy natural systems. Visualizing Energy is a public good; its motivations and methods are transparent, and its data products are freely available to all.
The project’s initial focus is on three interconnected areas: the connection between energy and human well-being; the history of energy transitions; and equity issues surrounding energy transitions (energy justice, energy burden, energy poverty, energy insecurity).
Studying the history of energy informs current constraints and opportunities, as illustrated by the United States. The first century of energy use was largely about America’s prodigious forests, fodder and food were the other early sources of energy. Even as late as the first decade of the 20th century there were about 30 million horses and mules and about 100 million people in the country, and their fuel accounted for about 6% of energy use.
The first major energy source transition was the substitution of coal for fuelwood. That substitution began in earnest in the mid-19th century and was largely complete by World War I, at which time coal accounted for about three-quarters of national energy use. The second major energy source transition was the substitution of oil (beginning 1910s) and then natural gas (beginning 1930s) for coal. This substitution was largely complete by the early 1970s. The increase in oil and gas was enabled by the advent of the internal combustion engine, advances in oil refining, and the expansion of the national gas pipeline network, among many other drivers.
The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to minimize the adverse effects of climate change has generated an enormous investigation of how renewable and other low-carbon sources can replace fossil fuels, the practicality of negative emissions technologies, and how fast this transition can and should happen. Regarding the United States, one thing is clear: if a rapid transition is underway, it is in a nascent stage. In 2021, fossil fuels accounted for more than 80% of primary energy use. Solar and wind are rapidly expanding in electricity generation, but the overall contribution of low-carbon energy is still small.
Interactive visualizations help us understand where clean energy is being rapidly deployed. Germany and Spain launched the modern solar photovoltaic (PV) industry with power plants coming online in the mid-2000s in the 20 to 60 MW range. They were quickly followed by China, the United States, South Africa, Japan, India, Germany, Turkey, France, and other European countries. In recent years China has accounted for nearly one-third of new capacity additions in the world. By the end of 2021, at least seven countries had enough PV capacity installed to meet at least 10% of their electricity demand from solar PV. Despite this rapid progress, solar and wind combined accounted for just 10% of total global electricity generation in 2021, indicating the need for a renewed emphasis on changes in technology, policy, and consumer behaviors to shift electricity generation to climate-friendly sources.