Learning lessons from past energy transitions for today’s daunting transition to net zero

Mark Lowey
March 27, 2024

Canada, along with more than 120 other countries, is attempting the kind of policy-driven energy transition that has never been done in history.

Achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – just 26 years from now – will require changing our country’s and the world’s fossil fuel-based energy systems at an unprecedented scale, timeframe and cost.

Given that no one has ever seen this magnitude of change in global energy systems in such a short time, what can we learn from past energy transitions?

The short answer is that “anything can happen. We have seen all sorts of things that, in the past, no one thought would happen,” said Petra Dolata (photo at left), associate professor of history at the University of Calgary and former Canada Research Chair in the history of energy. Her research includes a focus on the historical connections between deindustrialization and energy transitions.

In terms of what’s possible, who would have thought the Berlin Wall would fall and that Germany would be reunified, said Dolata, whose father mined coal in Germany’s Ruhr region before oil transformed the country’s energy system – resulting in government phasing out the coal industry.

Dolata joined energy-climate-policy experts Ed Whittingham, Sara Hastings-Simon, and David Keith for a webinar that looked at “How the history of energy transitions can inform our future,” presented by the Energy vs Climate webinar/podcast series.

“If you look at how specific energy transitions massively change how we order society, how they impact politics and policy and government, they are revolutionary,” Dolata said.

However, she noted: “We don’t have that many examples in the past where there’s a willed energy transition, where governments say, ‘We need to do this.’ So it’s difficult to compare [the current energy transition] with past energy transitions.”

Unlike past energy transitions, the current transition doesn’t involve replacing a technology that’s clearly inferior in performance with the new technology entering the market, and where consumer demand is rapidly displacing the old technology, said Ed Whittingham (photo at right), a clean energy/policy finance professional and Public Policy forum fellow at the Pembina Institute.

“This energy transition is fundamentally driven by public policy, whereas in the past other transitions – from whale oil to coal to oil and gas – [they] were really driven by share of market demand,” he said. Another driver of past energy transitions was the availability of the new technology versus the relative unavailability or cost of the old technology.

None of those factors underlies today’s net-zero energy transition, whose main driver is to reduce fossil fuel emissions and greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. The aim is to slow global warming and prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Energy transition is probably not the best description of what Canada and other countries are trying to do, said David Keith (photo at left), professor and founding faculty director of the Climate Systems Engineering Initiative at the University of Chicago. “Pollution” might be a more appropriate word to use, he said.

“This is a political fight about a pollutant (carbon dioxide, which is contributing to global warming),” he said. Through the energy transition, “we’re going to restrain ourselves from that pollutant.”

Efforts to control other pollutants, such as urban air pollution, water pollution, and pollution by long-lived metals and organic chlorines, all involved policy and were politically driven, Keith said.

Sara Hastings-Simon (photo at right), a professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Science whose research focuses on the energy transition, pointed out that historically, society didn’t always transition away from sources of energy, but rather added new energy sources (such as adding oil usage to coal) because of increasing global energy consumption.

But in the current energy transition, the world does have to transition away from using fossil fuel-based energy which is still in demand globally, she said. Many people, she added, argue that we’re not going to get to net zero because it would compel us to stop using high-energy density fossil fuels that the world relies on – a fundamentally different type of transformative energy transition than those shifts seen in the past.

The drivers and timescales of energy transitions

Keith, who described himself as a “technological determinist,” noted that the rapid transition from horse-drawn wagons to gasoline-fueled vehicles was because cities lacked an efficient way to deliver goods over the “last mile.” “It was a hole in the energy system, that we didn’t have a prime mover that could do the job.”

Also, the market for kerosene for lamps was disappearing due to electrical lighting, so oil producers were looking for a way to sell the gasoline that otherwise was a wasted byproduct, Keith said. “Developments in technology really do shape society in ways that matter.”

However, Dolata said that major energy transitions are much more complex and aren’t only about technology shifts; they are also transitions in social and cultural systems. Energy transitions can happen over centuries, or they can be part of lived experience, such as the transition from coal to oil that affected many Western countries in the mid-20th century.

Some energy system experts, such as Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, look at energy transitions as combining energy sources, “prime movers” that convert these sources, and energy users in an ever-more complex system where past transitions have taken 50 to 100 years or more, Dolata said.

However, “I would not be on the side of those who say, ‘Because we see how long it took in the past, that there’ll never be an energy transition that can be faster,’” she said. “The unthinkable can become thinkable. That’s the one lesson from history.”

There are also many pieces to the complex story of an energy transition, Dolata said. In the case of West Germany transitioning from coal to oil, for example, “a lot of these pieces have nothing to do with the market or pricing. They have to do all with politics, with specific societal aspects.”

In West Germany’s case, U.S. oil producers in the late 1950s were subject to oil import quotas in other countries. Germany after 1945 was one of the most open Western markets, and the country also was receiving U.S. dollars under the Marshall Plan to buy U.S. products and commodities.

“A lot of (U.S.) oil  really swamped the market in Germany,” and West German coal couldn’t compete with the introduction of oil or cheaper imported U.S. coal, Dolata said. The contraction of West Germany’s coal industry started in 1959, with coal workers losing their jobs and the Ruhr region gradually being deindustrialized.

Dolata said her coal miner father lost his employment when he was 53. However, the German government at both the federal and provincial levels, along with the coal companies, stepped in with a massive social plan to protect former coal workers from the energy transition’s impacts. Dolata said her father never lost his salary, even after losing his job.

Government subsidies were used to attract new manufacturing industries, such as nuclear and telecommunications. Universities were founded in the once-industrial Ruhr region to educate the next generation, and the younger workforce was retrained – all at government expense.

“The caveat is, it [the energy transition] worked in Germany and it worked at the time, but that doesn’t mean it will work in other jurisdictions and will work today,” Dolata said.

Nevertheless, the coal-to-oil transition in West Germany taught some very fundamental lessons about energy transitions, she said. These lessons are applicable to Alberta’s oil and gas workers, as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.

An energy system is also a social system and a cultural system

The idea of an energy system also being a social system and a cultural system is a reminder that people are involved and are always part of an energy system, Dolata said. For example, it’s hard to comprehend the experience of someone in the 19th century riding on a steam-driven train for the first time and seeing the landscape rushing by at such speed – something never before possible.

Energy transitions “help us create a whole new way of understanding how we interact and interrelate both with other people but also with the environment,” she said.

Within the energy systems of developed Western countries, Dolata said, there are certain  expectations about how people want to lead their lives, what they understand as progress, and how they see themselves as consumers. That makes us all “complicit” in our high-energy consumption societies, she said.

History also teaches us that the reception to and impact on people from energy transitions can be unexpected and have unforeseen consequences. For example, when electric lighting started to replace whale oil lamps in the Victorian period, it made a lot of women anxious as recorded in their diaries at the time, Dolata said. They became much more visible in the new electric light, as did the dirt and grime in homes. That raised expectations about standards of cleanliness and appearances, both personal and in the home.

“This idea that this technology fit perfectly with the demand that was there is often historically a lot more complex, because we know that people don’t necessarily jump on to these changes,” she said. “People are not rational actors, not in the way that economic theory makes them.”  

Hastings-Simon said people tend to be much more likely to accept the inconveniences from a technology they’re already using and are accustomed to. For example, people are used to having to get the oil changed in their car every six months. But electric vehicles will require regular charging, especially in planning for a road trip. The shift entails a different kind of inconvenience or habit.

Every new energy system needs its “champions,” Dolata said. “You need to have people who create a whole narrative around, ‘It would be better, it would be more efficient if we did X, Y, Z.’”

At the same time, there are generational differences in what people want and expect from future energy systems, she said. “Never will people agree on where those energy transitions should go.”

Dolata said the biggest lesson taught by the coal-to-oil transition in West Germany – and the one that has implications for Alberta’s oil and gas industry workers – is that political problems are created if people affected by the energy transition aren’t consulted and become part of the conversation. Problems also arise if people are immediately stigmatized because they stand up for the industry that’s facing transition.

There is much more related to an industry that’s providing people with jobs and a workplace, Dolata noted. “[People’s] identities are constructed around these industries, even beyond those who are employed by the industry.”

“You need to bring the people to the table. You need to understand their fears,” she said. “And you need to acknowledge that there’s much more than, ‘It’s just a job. What if we give you another job, would that help?’”

But to do that, Dolata said, the other big lesson taught by West Germany’s coal-to-oil transition is that government and the rest of society needs to start planning together early on how to manage the energy transition.

All the panelists expressed concern that they don’t see this planning being done by either the federal or Alberta governments. The approach taken by Alberta’s UCP government in its most recent budget, for example, is that global demand for oil will continue and the province will keep increasing oil production.

“We all need to remember there will always be winners and losers in energy transitions,” Dolata said. The difference is – which is what Western Germany’s experience showed – “is there a security net that either the state or communities themselves offer that deal with those [impacts]?”


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