|Radcliffe, Nottinghamshire, at the height of the Industrial Revolution|
Geology at the centre of energy transitions
But of course geology has always been at the centre of energy transitions. 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 too. Changes in the 1950s in the rate of human consumption and manufacturing have generated an inflection point known as the ‘Great Acceleration’.
So 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.
Resource distribution, extent and accessibility
The next transition to renewables
But 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.
Slow transition to renewables
|Coal mine in Dhanbad, India |
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 – like the introduction of coal/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 – so does an understanding of human systems.
Understanding energy transitions properly
What role do geologists play?
|Wind turbines at Holderness|
If you are interested in the wider geology – energy – climate nexus read my new book: https://www.elsevier.com/books/energy-and-climate-change/stephenson/978-0-12-812021-7
Prof Mike Stephenson is the Director of Science and Technology at the BGS.