Over the last 200 years, how we’ve gotten our energy has changed drastically.
These changes were driven by innovations like the steam engine, oil lamps, internal combustion engines, and the wide-scale use of electricity. The shift from a primarily agrarian global economy to an industrial one called for new sources to provide more efficient energy inputs.
The current energy transition is powered by the realization that avoiding the catastrophic effects of climate change requires a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This infographic provides historical context for the ongoing shift away from fossil fuels using data from Our World in Data and scientist Vaclav Smil.
Before the Industrial Revolution, people burned wood and dried manure to heat homes and cook food, while relying on muscle power, wind, and water mills to grind grains. Transportation was aided by using carts driven by horses or other animals.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the prices of firewood and charcoal skyrocketed due to shortages. These were driven by increased consumption from both households and industries as economies grew and became more sophisticated.
Consequently, industrializing economies like the UK needed a new, cheaper source of energy. They turned to coal, marking the beginning of the first major energy transition.
As coal use and production increased, the cost of producing it fell due to economies of scale. Simultaneously, technological advances and adaptations brought about new ways to use coal.
The steam engine—one of the major technologies behind the Industrial Revolution—was heavily reliant on coal, and homeowners used coal to heat their homes and cook food. This is evident in the growth of coal’s share of the global energy mix, up from 1.7% in 1800 to 47.2% in 1900.
In 1859, Edwin L. Drake built the first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania, but it was nearly a century later that oil became a major energy source.
Before the mass production of automobiles, oil was mainly used for lamps. Oil demand from internal combustion engine vehicles started climbing after the introduction of assembly lines, and it took off after World War II as vehicle purchases soared.
Similarly, the invention of the Bunsen burner opened up new opportunities to use natural gas in households. As pipelines came into place, gas became a major source of energy for home heating, cooking, water heaters, and other appliances.
Coal lost the home heating market to gas and electricity, and the transportation market to oil.
Despite this, it became the world’s most important source of electricity generation and still accounts for over one-third of global electricity production today.
Renewable energy sources are at the center of the ongoing energy transition. As countries ramp up their efforts to curb emissions, solar and wind energy capacities are expanding globally.
Here’s how the share of renewables in the global energy mix changed over the last two decades:
In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the share of renewables increased by just 1.1%. But the growth is speeding up—between 2010 and 2020, this figure stood at 3.5%.
Furthermore, the current energy transition is unprecedented in both scale and speed, with climate goals requiring net-zero emissions by 2050. That essentially means a complete fade-out of fossil fuels in less than 30 years and an inevitable rapid increase in renewable energy generation.
Renewable energy capacity additions were on track to set an annual record in 2021, following a record year in 2020. Additionally, global energy transition investment hit a record of $755 billion in 2021.
However, history shows that simply adding generation capacity is not enough to facilitate an energy transition. Coal required mines, canals, and railroads; oil required wells, pipelines, and refineries; electricity required generators and an intricate grid.
Similarly, a complete shift to low-carbon sources requires massive investments in natural resources, infrastructure, and grid storage, along with changes in our energy consumption habits.
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As more solar power is introduced into our grids, operators are dealing with a new problem that can be visualized as the ‘duck curve.’
With the increasing demand for electricity as the world shifts away from fossil fuels, cleaner sources of energy like solar and wind are becoming more and more common.
However, as more solar power is introduced into our grids, operators are dealing with a new problem that can be visualized as the “duck curve.”
In a world heavily reliant on electricity, utility companies have gotten better at using data to anticipate demand and trying to operate as efficiently as possible.
Usually, power companies supply the least amount of power overnight while most consumers are sleeping, ramping up during the morning as people wake up and businesses get going. Then, at sunset, energy demand peaks.
Utility companies use models to predict demand and operate as efficiently as possible by supplying more power during times of higher demand. But the introduction of solar power has brought about problems in these demand curve models.
Since solar power relies on the Sun, peak solar production occurs around midday, when electricity demand is often on the lower end. As a result, energy production is higher than it needs to be, and net demand—total demand minus wind and solar production—falls. Then, when evening approaches, net demand increases, while solar power generation falls.
This discrepancy results in a net demand curve that takes the shape of a duck, and the duck curve gets more pronounced each year, as more solar capacity is added and net demand dips lower and lower at midday.
The drop in net demand at midday basically creates two problems:
Due to overproduction, solar power is already being wasted in some places where the technology is widely used, like California.
The problem is most intense during summer or spring when part of the solar panels has to be turned off to avoid overloading or even damaging the power grid.
With more countries starting to rely on solar power, there are many potential solutions for the duck curve being explored (and implemented):
While grid managers study how to serve the new supply and demand, the duck curve is one of the greatest challenges facing renewable energy.
Explore North America’s crude oil pipelines and refineries across the U.S. and Canada in our interactive map.
Pipelines are the primary method of transporting crude oil around the world, delivering oil and its derivative products swiftly to refineries and empowering reliant businesses.
And North America is a major oil hub. The U.S. and Canada alone are home to more than 90,000 miles of crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, along with more than 140 refineries that can process around 20 million barrels of oil every day.
This interactive graphic uses data from Rextag to map out crude oil pipelines and refineries across the U.S. and Canada, showcasing individual pipeline diameter and daily refinery throughput.
Since 2010, U.S. crude oil production has more than doubled from 5.4 million barrels a day to more than 11.5 million. Meanwhile, the pipeline networks needed to transport this newly produced oil have only expanded by roughly 56%.
Today, the largest pipeline network across the U.S. and Canada (with a diameter of at least 10 inches) is the 14,919 mile network managed by Plains, which spans from the northwestern tip of Alberta all the way down to the southern coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
Enbridge owns the next largest crude oil pipeline network, with 12,974 miles of crude oil pipelines that are at least 10 inches in diameter. The Canadian company, one of the world’s largest oil companies, transports about 30% of the crude oil produced in North America.
Following the networks of Plains and Enbridge, there’s a steep drop off in the length of pipeline networks, with Sunoco’s crude oil pipeline network spanning about half the length of Enbridge’s at 6,409 miles.
These various sprawling pipeline networks initially carry crude oil to refineries, where it is processed into gasoline, diesel fuel, and other petroleum products.
The refineries with the largest throughput in North America are all located in the Gulf Coast (PADD 3), with the five refineries that process more than 500,000 barrels per day all located in the states of Louisiana and Texas.
While Texas and Louisiana have six refineries that process more than 400,000 barrels per day, there are only two other facilities outside of these states with the same kind of throughput, located in Whiting, Indiana (435,000 barrels per day) and Fort McMurray, Alberta (465,000 barrels per day).
Fort McMurray’s facility is an upgrader, which differs from refineries as it upgrades heavy oils like bitumen into lighter synthetic crude oil which flows through pipelines more easily. Many oil refineries aren’t able to directly convert bitumen, which is extracted from oil sands like those found in Alberta, making upgraders a necessary part in the production and processing of crude oil from oil sands.
The development of new pipelines remains a contentious issue in Canada and the U.S., with the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline emblematic of growing anti-pipeline sentiment. In 2021, only 14 petroleum liquids pipeline projects were completed in the U.S., which was the lowest amount of new pipelines and expansions since 2013.
But domestic energy production is once again in the spotlight due to the U.S. ban on Russian oil imports and Russia’s impending export ban on raw materials. North American consumers are now facing surging gasoline and energy prices as foreign oil is proving to be far less reliable in times of geopolitical turmoil.
It’s important to note that pipelines are not a perfect solution, as leaks and spills in just the last decade have resulted in billions of dollars of damages. From 2010 to 2020, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded 983 incidents that resulted in 149,000 spilled and unrecovered barrels of oil, five fatalities, 27 injuries, and more than $2.5B in damages.
But over the past five years, liquid pipeline incidents have fallen by 21% while pipeline mileage and barrels delivered have increased by more than 27%. Along with these infrastructure improvements, pipeline developers and operators emphasize the lack of better alternatives, as freight and seaborne transportation are both far less efficient and result in more carbon emissions.
Currently, pipelines remain key components of energy consumption across the U.S. and Canada, and as global energy markets face supply squeezes, international sanctions, and geopolitical turbulence, the focus on them has grown.
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The History of Energy Transitions – Elements by Visual Capitalist