Visualizing the History of Energy Transitions
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Visualizing the History of Energy Transitions

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History of Energy Transitions

The History of Energy Transitions

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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.

Coal and the First Energy Transition

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.

YearTraditional Biomass % of Energy MixCoal % of Energy Mix
180098.3%1.7%
182097.6%2.4%
184095.1%4.9%
186086.8%13.3%
188073.0%26.7%
190050.4%47.2%
192038.4%54.4%
194031.6%50.7%

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.

The Rise of Oil and Gas

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.

YearCoal % of Energy MixOil % of Energy MixNatural Gas % of Energy Mix
195044.2%19.1%7.3%
196037.0%26.6%10.7%
197025.7%40.2%14.5%
198023.8%40.6%16.3%
199024.4%35.5%18.4%
200022.5%35.1%19.7%

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.

The Transition to Renewable Energy

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:

YearTraditional BiomassRenewablesFossil FuelsNuclear Power
200010.2%6.6%77.3%5.9%
20058.7%6.5%79.4%5.4%
20107.7%7.7%79.9%4.7%
20156.9%9.2%79.9%4.0%
20206.7%11.2%78.0%4.0%

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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Energy

Visualizing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector

The U.S. emits about 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases a year. Here’s how these emissions rank by sector.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council.


Visualizing U.S. Emissions by Sector

Decarbonization efforts in the U.S. are ramping up, and in 2020, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were lower than at any point during the previous 30 years.

However there’s still work to be done before various organizations, states, and nationwide targets are met. And when looking at GHG emissions by sector, the data suggests that some groups have more work cut out for them than others.

This graphic from the National Public Utilities Council provides the key data and trends on the total emissions by U.S. sector since 1990.

The Highest Emitting Sectors

Collectively, the U.S. emitted 5,981 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions in 2020, which rose 6.1% in 2021.

Here’s how the various sectors in the U.S. compare.

Sector2020 GHG emissions, MMT CO2ePercentage of Total
Transportation1,627.627%
Electricity generation1,482.625%
Industry1,426.224%
Agriculture635.111%
Commercial425.37%
Residential362.06%
U.S. territories23.0<1%

The transportation sector ranks highest by emissions and has been notably impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still affecting travel and supply chains. This has led to whipsawing figures during the last two years.

For instance, in 2020, the transportation sector’s emissions fell 15%, the steepest fall of any sector. But the largest increase in emissions in 2021 also came from transportation, which is largely credited to the economic and tourism recovery last year.

Following transportation, electricity generation accounted for a quarter of U.S. GHG emissions in 2020, with fossil fuel combustion making up nearly 99% of the sector’s emissions. The other 1% includes waste incineration and other power generation technologies like renewables and nuclear power, which produce emissions during the initial stages of raw material extraction and construction.

Decarbonizing the Power Sector

The Biden Administration has set a goal to make the U.S. power grid run on 100% clean energy by 2035—a key factor in achieving the country’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Industrial factories, commercial buildings, and homes all consume electricity to power their machinery and appliances. Therefore, the power sector can help reduce their carbon footprint by supplying more clean electricity, although this largely depends on the availability of infrastructure for transmission.

Here’s how sectors would look if their respective electricity end-use is taken into account

SectorEmissions by Sector % of Total
Agriculture11%
Transportation27%
Industry30%
Residential & Commercial30%

Percentages may not add up to 100% due to independent rounding

With these adjustments, the industrial, commercial, and residential sectors experience a notable jump, and lead ahead of other categories

Today, the bulk of electricity generation, 60%, comes from natural gas and coal-fired power plants, with nuclear, renewables, and other sources making up 40% of the total.

Energy Source2020 Electric generation, billion kWhShare of total
Natural Gas1,57538.3%
Coal89921.8%
Nuclear77818.9%
Wind3809.2%
Hydropower2606.3%

However, progress and notable strides have been made towards sustainable energy. In 2021, renewables accounted for one-fifth of U.S. electricity generation, roughly doubling their share since 2010.

Coal’s share as a source of electric power has dropped dramatically in recent years. And partially as a result, electricity generation has seen its portion of emissions successfully decrease by 21% , with overall emissions falling from 1,880 million metric tons of CO2 to 1,482 million metric tons.

How Utilities Can Lead the Way

Should these trends persist, the electricity generation sector has a chance to play a pivotal role in the broader decarbonization initiative. And with the bulk of electricity generation in the U.S. coming from investor-owned utilities (IOUs), this is a unique opportunity for IOUs to lead the transition toward cleaner energy.

The National Public Utilities Council is the go-to resource to learn how utilities can lead in the path towards decarbonization.

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Visualizing 10 Years of Global EV Sales by Country

Global EV sales have grown exponentially, more than doubling in 2021 to 6.8 million units. Here’s a look at EV sales by country since 2011.

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Visualizing 10 Years of Global EV Sales by Country

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In 2011, around 55,000 electric vehicles (EVs) were sold around the world. 10 years later in 2021, that figure had grown close to 7 million vehicles.

With many countries getting plugged into electrification, the global EV market has seen exponential growth over the last decade. Using data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), this infographic shows the explosion in global EV sales since 2011, highlighting the countries that have grown into the biggest EV markets.

The Early EV Days

From 2011 to 2015, global EV sales grew at an average annual rate of 89%, with roughly one-third of global sales occurring in the U.S. alone.

YearTotal EV SalesCAGR
201155,414-
2012132,013138.2%
2013220,34366.9%
2014361,15763.9%
2015679,23588.0%
Total sales / Avg growth1,448,16289.3%

In 2014, the U.S. was the largest EV market followed by China, the Netherlands, Norway, and France. But things changed in 2015, when China’s EV sales grew by 238% relative to 2014, propelling it to the top spot.

China’s growth had been years in the making, with the government offering generous subsidies for electrified cars, in addition to incentives and policies that encouraged production. In 2016, Chinese consumers bought more EVs than the rest of the world combined—and the country hasn’t looked back, accounting for over half of global sales in 2021.

EV Sales by Country in 2021

After remaining fairly flat in 2019, global EV sales grew by 38% in 2020, and then more than doubled in 2021. China was the driver of the growth—the country sold more EVs in 2021 than the rest of the world combined in 2020.

Country2021 EV Sales% of Total
China 🇨🇳3,519,05451.7%
U.S. 🇺🇸631,1529.3%
Germany 🇩🇪695,65710.2%
France 🇫🇷322,0434.7%
UK 🇬🇧326,9904.8%
Norway 🇳🇴153,6992.3%
Italy 🇮🇹141,6152.1%
Sweden 🇸🇪138,7712.0%
South Korea 🇰🇷119,4021.8%
Netherlands 🇳🇱97,2821.4%
Rest of Europe 🇪🇺 469,9306.9%
Rest of the World 🌍 313,1294.6%
Total6,809,322100.0%

China has nearly 300 EV models available for purchase, more than any other country, and it’s also home to four of the world’s 10 largest battery manufacturers. Moreover, the median price of electric cars in China is just 10% more than conventional cars, compared to 45-50% on average in other major markets.

Germany, Europe’s biggest auto market, sold nearly 700,000 EVs in 2021, up 72% from 2020. The country hosts some of the biggest EV factories in Europe, with Tesla, Volkswagen, and Chinese battery giant CATL either planning or operating ‘gigafactories’ there. Overall, sales in Europe increased by 65% in 2021, as evidenced by the seven European countries in the above list.

The U.S. also made a comeback after a two-year drop, with EV sales more than doubling in 2021. The growth was supported by a 24% increase in EV model availability, and also by an increase in production of Tesla models, which accounted for half of U.S. EV sales.

Tesla’s Dominance in the U.S.

Tesla is the world’s most renowned electric car company and its dominance in the U.S. is unmatched.

Between 2011 and 2019, Tesla accounted for 40% of all EVs sold in the United States. Furthermore, Tesla cars have been the top-selling EV models in the U.S. in every year since 2015.

EV Model2021 Sales% of 2021 U.S. EV Sales
Tesla Model Y*185,99429.5%
Tesla Model 3*147,46023.4%
Ford Mustang Mach-E27,1404.3%
Chevy Bolt EV/EUV24,8283.9%
Volkswagen ID.416,7422.7%
Tesla Model S*15,5452.5%
Nissan Leaf14,2392.3%
Porsche Taycan9,4191.5%
Tesla Model X*7,9851.3%
Audi e-tron7,4291.2%

*Estimates
Share of total sales calculated using total U.S. EV sales of 631,152 units, based on data from the IEA.
Source: Cleantechnica

Tesla accounted for over 50% of EV sales in the U.S. in 2021 with the Model Y—launched in 2019—taking the top spot. Furthermore, the Model Y remained the bestselling EV in the first quarter of 2022, with Tesla taking up a massive 75% of the EV market share.

Despite Tesla’s popularity, it could face a challenge as other automakers roll out new models and expand EV production. For example, General Motors aims to make 20 EV models available by 2025, and Ford expects to produce at least 2 million EVs annually by 2026. This increase in competition from incumbents and new entrants could eat away at Tesla’s market share in the coming years.

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