For those of us that remember the 1970s, a defining event of the era was the energy crisis, which saw significant hikes in the price of oil and many questioning the security of existing energy supplies. The shock triggered a huge investment in alternative energy sources, most notably nuclear. Meanwhile Denmark started developing high efficiency wind turbines which are still setting the standard today. The crisis also drove the search for, and exploitation of, previously uneconomic sources of oil such as offshore deepwater fields and oil sands.
History suggests transitions from traditional energy sources to cheaper, better alternatives are typically slow, gradual processes. Photo: iStockphoto
What happened in the disco era was a continuation of a process that has actually been going on for millennia. Farmers started using horses and oxen to pull plows because the animals were stronger than they were and relied on an energy source (grass) which they could not eat. Similarly, the switch from tallow candles to gas powered lighting made it much easier and cheaper to do the crossword, but also made it possible for cities to have a nightlife.
These are both examples of “energy system transitions”. Other examples from the history books include the transition from whale oil to kerosene, from water mills to fixed steam engines, and from horse-drawn (grain fed) transport to steam trains (coal fed).
Today there is lots of talk about transitioning from fossil fuels to achieve a “green economy” and tackling the challenge of climate change. In previous OSQARs we have discussed the relative strengths and weaknesses of different energy systems. All have taken time to become part of the mainstream; typically at least 50 to 100 years depending on price, availability, infrastructure, reliability and the difficulty of displacing the incumbent energy source.
Despite these challenges, energy transitions do occur when the new source of energy is universally recognized to be ‘better’ - superior in terms of cost, flexibility/usability, energy density, and/or cleanliness.
New technologies often start as niche energy sources, and then as costs fall and technical efficiencies rise, go mainstream. Transitions generally don’t happen without a certain amount of ‘push’ from government and other forces that can help overcome resistance. This has included municipal, provincial and federal investments in energy systems and distribution infrastructure.
To help facilitate a transition to a greener future governments are, and no doubt will continue to, make it more attractive to use currently less price-competitive energy from renewable technologies.
Knowing that these energy transitions take time, oil sands and other “conventional” sources of energy (while continually being improved) can serve as an energy bridge until alternative sources are more fully implemented.
Suncor, among others, has called for a national energy strategy. The only way we can provide a path for transitions to other fuels, as well as ensure the continued health of our economy and environment, is to know where we are going, what we have to do to get there, and to make the right choices to complete the journey.
With that, chances are that when the next disco revival happens, that rotating glittery ball you’ll see (you know, the one that’s a feature of any good dance mix) will be powered and lit by greener energy.