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Watt's Happening: The third energy transition

We are now well into the next great energy transition: from fossil fuels to renewable energies from the sun, wind, and earth. Perhaps we are about halfway through the usual 70-year time frame?
A solar array on your roof, shop, garage or in your backyard can make all of the electricity you need to power your home, all your gadgets, and your car, all at a cost less than you are now paying for grid electricity.

don​Fossil fuels have brought us to levels of prosperity and abundance unimaginable a century ago. Today, however, these conventional fuels are backfiring. Burning them is causing the build-up of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide and methane, warming the planet and throwing our weather badly out of whack.

To stabilize the weather, concerned climatologists are calling for an immediate 60 to 70% cut in carbon dioxide emissions, with a rapid phase-out of all fossil fuels within 20 years. Wow, that’s a pretty tall order. Can we do it?

Well, we know how. No new scientific breakthroughs, no new technologies are needed. We know what to do and we know how to do it.

And there’s more good news. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies from the sun and wind will not mean unemployment and hardship. To the contrary, this transition, now well underway in much of the world, will mean more jobs and a higher standard of living for most everyone, not to mention a cleaner, healthier environment now and for generations to come.

The benefits of this historic energy transition will fall particularly to those nations, companies and individuals that take a leadership role. A look at history confirms this.

Our first energy transition

The move from oil and gas to solar, wind and other sources of renewable energy is not our first great energy transition. In fact, as a civilization, we’re getting pretty good at this energy transition thing.

Let’s remember that we started out with renewables, long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Wind, water and wood power brought us to the beginning of the fossil fuel age in the 1800s. These early renewable energies were used to sale the ships that mapped the world and build the devices that allowed us to enter the coal era. This first great energy transition from renewables to coal took about 70 years to complete.

Our second energy transition

Then we used coal energy to make the materials and devices that allowed us to tap into the newly discovered oil and gas reserves. Oil and gas were harder to get at than coal, but they were much more concentrated forms of stored energy, easily piped and pumped. Oil and gas brought us into yet another new, higher level of industrial efficiency and productivity – the era in which we are now living.

The move from coal to oil and gas also took about 70 years to complete. Each energy transition has given us an energy source that is more efficient and more powerful than the one before.

In spite of warnings, threats, and complaints from vested energy interests at the time, an unexpected economic boom accompanied each transition. Those nations and individuals who invested early in the new energy technologies became the world leaders of the new energy era. Those who did not, but instead choose to stick with the old energy sources, fell behind.

Our third energy transition

We are now well into the next great energy transition: from fossil fuels to renewable energies from the sun, wind, and earth. Perhaps we are about halfway through the usual 70-year time frame? In a way, it’s a transition back to the past, but with all of our modern scientific and technical knowledge to make it high-tech smart and super-efficient... and fast!

Once the renewable energy infrastructure is in place, these energy resources will be harvested forever, constantly replenished by the forces of nature, the same forces that make our amazing planet a comfortable home for life.

Renewables do not make energy by burning fuel and so are very close to pollution-free during operation, and once enough renewables are in place, we’ll make solar panels and wind turbines with ultra-low carbon green energy too.

Renewable energies are widely distributed around the world, allowing each nation, and often each individual, to become an energy producer, not just a consumer. Renewables are extremely plentiful, thousands of times more than we will ever need, and the technologies needed to harvest them are simple, reliable and easily mass-produced.

Driven by climate change, a good dose of common sense, and an immense worldwide market for clean energy technologies, the third great energy transition has begun. For humanity, it’s back to the future, again.

Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek and is Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.

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