Visualizing the History of Energy Transitions – Visual Capitalist

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History of Energy Transitions
This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.
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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Explore North America’s crude oil pipelines and refineries across the U.S. and Canada in our interactive map.
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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.
Source: Rextag
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.
Source: Rextag
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.
The EU’s energy dependency has become a major issue amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. See what the data says in this infographic.
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In response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and EU have imposed heavy sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy. However, these bold actions also come with some potentially messy complications: Russia is not only one of the world’s largest exporters of energy products, but it is also Europe’s biggest supplier of these fuels.
As of October 2021, Russia supplied 25% of all oil imported by the EU, which is three times more than the second-largest trade partner. Naturally, the policies and circumstances that have led to this dependency have been under major scrutiny in recent weeks.
To help you learn more, this infographic visualizes energy data from Eurostat.
To start, let’s compare the energy dependence of each EU member, both in 2000 and 2020 (the latest year available). This metric shows the extent to which a country relies upon imports to meet its energy needs.
Note that Denmark’s value of -35.9% for the year 2000 is not a typo. Rather, it means that the country was a net exporter of energy.
Over this 20-year timeframe, the EU-27 average country’s energy dependence has increased from 56.3% to 57.5%, meaning EU members became slightly more reliant on energy imports over those two decades.
Looking further into energy imports reveals that Russia is the main supplier of crude oil, coal, and natural gas. Continue below for more details.
The EU imports more crude oil from Russia than the next three countries combined.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Russia was the world’s third largest producer of oil in 2020. The country has several state-owned oil companies including Rosneft and Gazprom.
Coal-fired power plants are still being used across the EU, though most member states expect to completely phase them out by 2030.
Russia has the second largest coal reserves in the world. In 2020, it mined 328 million metric tons, making it the sixth largest producer globally.
Natural gas is commonly used to heat buildings and water. A majority of the EU’s supply comes from Russia via the Nord Stream series of pipelines.
Nord Stream 1 is the longest sub-sea pipeline in the world and was completed in 2011. It starts from the Russian city of Vyborg and connects to the EU through Germany.
Nord Stream 2 is a recently constructed expansion which was expected to double the project’s capacity. Germany has since halted the approval process for this pipeline in response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
In retaliation against Western sanctions, Russia has announced an impending ban on exports of certain goods and raw materials.
European gas prices skyrocketed in response, as many fear that Russia could cut off natural gas supplies. This, of course, would have very negative effects on both consumers and businesses.
In early March 2022, both the European Commission and the International Energy Agency (IEA) introduced proposals on how Europe could reduce its energy dependency.
We must become independent from Russian oil, coal and gas. We simply cannot rely on a supplier who explicitly threatens us.
– Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission
Cutting off one’s biggest supplier is likely to cause issues, especially when dealing with something as critical as energy. Few countries have the capacity (or willingness) to immediately replace Russian imports.
The proposals also discussed options for boosting Europe’s domestic output, though the commission’s report notably excluded nuclear power. For various reasons, nuclear remains a polarizing topic in Europe, with countries taking either a pro or anti stance.
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