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From the industrial revolution to the renewables economy: the importance of geology

By: , Posted on: April 25, 2018

Geoscience has always been at the centre of energy transitions,
and this is examined in my new book: Energy and Climate Change: An Introduction to Geological Controls, Interventions and Mitigations.

The industrial revolution had at its heart a transition from energy from wood and falling water to coal (the start of the fossil economy); in the process allowing greater energy on tap and also greater flexibility to operate (assuming you could get coal to your factory). The fossil economy also meant a long-term buy-in to coal and then to petroleum leading to increased CO2 emissions amongst other more beneficial aspects related to greater availability of energy including increased wealth and living standards. The start of the industrial revolution produced an ‘inflection point’ on the CO2 curve indicating an important point in human history when the focus of energy resource provision switched from the surface of the Earth to the subsurface. The transition from coal to oil generated atmospheric change as well. Changes in the 1950s in the rate of human consumption and manufacturing have generated an ‘inflection point’ known as the ‘Great Acceleration.’

The most obvious relationship between geoscience and energy transitions is the distribution of resources, their extent, distribution and accessibility. In the case of coal, its distribution has governed past industrialisation, and to some extent the accumulation of human wealth and power. The nations of the industrial revolution are still amongst the most powerful in the world.

Moving into the next transition to renewables, geoscience and geological surveys will have just as important a role. Decarbonisation will involve geoscience at every level, from straightforward low carbon generation (e.g. geothermal), to energy storage to counteract renewables intermittency (e.g. compressed air energy storage, heat storage), to emissions abatement of fossil fuel generation and industry (e.g. carbon capture and storage). Geological studies that support these technologies will therefore be vital to the effort to go through the next transition.

Studies show that transitions can be slow because of the in-built inertia of the incumbent technology. This may be visible in the developing world which is poised to industrialise and to experience changes in living standards, wealth and energy usage. Most forecasts suggest that energy demand will increase in the developing world, but the extent to which this demand will be satisfied by fossil fuels is not known, but could be considerable. India is a case in point. The forecasts of the IEA, EIA and BP suggest that much of India’s energy in the future will come from coal. At present, coal provides about 70% of India’s electricity but about 243 GW of coal-fired power is planned in India, with 65 GW actually being constructed and an extra 178 GW proposed. Work by lead by Christine Shearer of the charity CoalSwarm has surveyed this proposed ‘fleet’ of Indian coal power stations. Their survey shows that coal plants under development could be producing 435 GW of coal power by 2025, and, assuming an average lifetime of 40 years, the coal plants could be operating as far ahead as 2065. Such a commitment to coal would guarantee high Indian greenhouse gas emissions for many years to come and prolong the dominance of fossil fuels, freezing out renewables. If the developing world takes up fossil fuels, what hope do we have to keep within the 2-degree limit?

Human energy systems, the economies that are built around coal, oil and gas, contain inertia that slows down change.  They also operate in similar ways to the physical science feedbacks and tipping points of the natural climate system, and many other natural systems and cycles. There are serendipitous events that lead to the increased use of fossil fuels, and positive feedbacks that allow fuels to rapidly grow. The industrial revolution has many examples, such as the introduction of coal and steam powered pumps that allowed coal mining to go deeper below the water table, so that more coal could be mined. Regulation and policy matter too – and politics. So to be able to understand energy transitions properly, it’s not just technology that matters; an understanding of human systems is also essential.

But how can geologists be part of the transition? We should be thinking about geological studies that support such diverse aspects as pumped hydro storage, low enthalpy geothermal, compressed air energy storage, hydrogen storage, CCS, biofuels and CCS (BECCS). We should be thinking about geological studies to support infrastructure (the pipelines for example) and where they might go. This will mean linking in with the Government’s Industrial Strategy and place agenda. Natural gas may also have a place in this work since it is (at the moment) the de facto way that the energy systems of the United Kingdom and elsewhere are adapting to the intermittency produced by increasing renewables. We may even have to start thinking harder about batteries and where the metals that make them might come from in the future!

If you are interested in the wider geology – energy – climate nexus, read my new book!

If you found this story stimulating, you may be interested in browsing more content within this book on ScienceDirect. We are pleased to offer you a free chapter – access this content by clicking on this link – Energy and Climate Change: Geological Controls, Interventions, and Mitigations.

Need a copy of your own? Save 30% on this book and others on elsevier.com. Enter discount code STC317 at checkout.

About the author:

Michael Stephenson is an expert on energy and climate change and has a unique mixture of experience in modern climate and energy science, policy, “deep time” climate science, and coal and petroleum geology. He has published two books on related subjects and over 80 peer-reviewed papers. His recently published book Shale gas and fracking: the science behind the controversy (Elsevier) won an ‘honourable mention’ at the Association of American Publishers PROSE awards in Washington DC in February 2016. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the Elsevier Journal Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology. In addition, as Chief Scientist of the British Geological Survey, Michael Stephenson has represented UK science interests in energy, as well as providing extensive advice to the UK Government.

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