Energy Policy

Energy Transitions


Energy Transitions

Vaclav Smil defines an energy transition as, "the time that elapses between the introduction of a new primary energy source (coal, oil, nuclear electricity, wind captured by large turbines) and its rise to claiming a substantial share of the overall market" (2010).

If we explore historical energy transitions, we will see that they all have one thing in common - they tend to be slow, spanning decades or more. Let's look at some examples (also from Smil's Energy Myths and Realities):

  • For millennia, people relied on biomass fuels to meet their energy needs. Coal did not overtake biomass as the primary fuel source until the late 1880s.
  • Oil was first commercially produced in the 1860s; however, it did not reach 10% of the market share until 50 years later. It took another 30 years to raise that from 10% to 25%.
  • Natural gas, first available in 1900, did not reach 20% of the total energy market until 1970. Its share in 2008 was just half of what had been anticipated in the 1970s.

What's happening with these energy transitions that are causing them to take so long to develop? Infrastructure is a big consideration. Think about the global infrastructure that exists to extract, process, transport, and utilize our current mix of fossil fuels. Even if we assume a utopian scenario of the discovery of a new energy resource that is plentiful, clean, easily accessible, and cheap, that doesn't change the reality of our past investments. And the physical infrastructure is only part of the equation. There's also a global workforce of individuals whose livelihoods are based on the development of these resources.

In addition, people are creatures of habit, and a reluctance to accept change can be a significant challenge to overcome in the quest to grow the market share of a new energy resource. One easy example is that of hybrid cars - many people are uneasy about purchasing an alternative fuel vehicle because they fear the unknown. What if something happens to the battery? The technology is still too new. Our own reluctance to accept new risks influences the marketplace. Many people are willing to accept less efficiency for more predictability.

A New Transition is Afoot

And now we find ourselves in the midst of the next big energy transition as we look to move beyond the hydrocarbons that have propelled our society for two centuries now in favor of lower-carbon, more environmentally sustainable alternatives. The transition to a low carbon economy is one borne more out of necessity from the perspective of addressing climate change than it is a response to dwindling supplies of fossil-fuel-based energy supply. However, that concern also factors into the decision. And like the energy transitions of the past, this one is playing out over an extended time frame, though the more rapid deployment of technology over time (generally speaking) may expedite this journey a bit. And while we can't perfectly predict how the transition will unfold, corporations and governments the world over are trying to understand the likely scenarios and plan for them.

This graphic below is really nicely done because it lays out peaks in various resource use as well as the overall peak in our global demand for energy along with the ramping up of renewable capabilities. DNV GL offers a projection of the next 10 years here (spoiler: there is progress, but we are not transitioning fast enough to carbon neutrality), if you are so inclined. This is of course one think tank's best guess at what the transition will look like as they seek to prepare their partners for the changes ahead. Can you find examples of other models of what our transition to a sustainable energy future might look like? Feel free to share them in our HAVE A QUESTION discussion board!

graphic timeline of transition to a renewable energy future.
Figure 1.3: Energy Transition Timeline
Click for a text description of Figure 1.3

Highlights of our forecast energy transition to 2050. The green slope represents the share of non-fossil energy sources in the energy mix. 


  • 2014: Coal Peaked
  • 2023: Oil Peaks
  • 2026: Transport energy demand peaks
  • 2032: Peak primary energy supply
  • 2033: Nuclear peaks
  • 2034: Natural gas peaks
  • 2035: Peak final energy demand
  • 2039: Manufacturing energy demand peaks


  • 2023: Seaborne container trade exceeds crude oil trade
  • 2026: Gas over-takes oil
  • 2031: Wind overtakes hydro
  • 2034: Non-fossil capex overtakes fossil capex
  • 2038: Seaborne gas trade exceeds coal trade
  • 2044: Solar PV overtakes biomass in primary energy
  • 2049: Solar PV overtakes oil in primary energy


  • 2023: PV installations 1TW
  • 2028: 95% of the world population has electricity access
  • 2035: World grid capacity doubles from 2016
  • 2035: Maritime energy demand peaks
  • 2038: Wind supply x10 more than 2016
  • 2040: PV installations 10TW
  • 2042: Half of maritime energy use is non-oil
  • 2044: Non-fossil expenditures overtake fossil expenditures
  • 2048: World grid capacity triples from 2016


  • 2024: Light EVs reach cost parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
  • 2033: Half of all light vehicle sales electric
  • 2042: Half of the world’s fleet of road vehicles - light and heavy - is electric
  • 2047: Heavy electric vehicles start to outnumber ICE heavy vehicles on the road

2016: 19% of the energy mix is non-fossil

2050: 50% of the energy mix is non-fossil

Download the high resolution PDF of Fig. 1.3 of this graph so you can actually see it.