Energy: Global Trends & Transitions


Earth at night - from NASA's Visible Earth project.

Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be…[The] past clarifies potential paths to the future.

One often-discussed path is cultural and economic simplicity and lower energy costs. This could come about through the "crash" that many fear - a genuine collapse over a period of one or two generations, with much violence, starvation, and loss of population.

The alternative is the "soft landing" that many people hope for - a voluntary change to solar energy and green fuels, energy-conserving technologies, and less overall consumption. This is a utopian alternative that, as suggested above, will come about only if severe, prolonged hardship in industrial nations makes it attractive, and if economic growth and consumerism can be removed from the realm of ideology.

The more likely option is a future of greater investments in problem solving, increasing overall complexity, and greater use of energy. This option is driven by the material comforts it provides, by vested interests, by lack of alternatives, and by our conviction that it is good.

— Joseph A. Tainter, Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies

Another Energy Website - Yawn?

There are plenty of other energy websites online, so what's special about mine? In sum, if you have a serious interest in future energy and want candid suggestions and regular updates by a pro, stick around, I may be of help. My intentions for this page:

  • Future-focus, mostly: I have a different goal from most energy websites: to anticipate medium-term developments in the global transition to clean energy. Currently that means 2020 should see "smart distributed" energy systems ascending - but I'll change my expectations as the facts change. By contrast, government energy websites focus on policy and/or statistical data; industry websites focus on their products; academia seeks publications/novelty over practicality; and media websites try to report on everything (drowning readers in noise). So overall, the forest of the future gets lost in various trees of the moment; but not here.
  • Focus on distributed energy, often: As I believe in the need for clean energy (meaning renewable energy), I think solar power will be the dark horse winner in that space, combined with cheap(er) energy storage, and computerized demand response. Those three technologies will be market-competitive and most prevalent at the distributed level (as opposed to changes at the larger-scale transmission/utility level), which I'll keep an eye on.
  • Focus on software + energy, often: As a software engineer and energy engineer, this is my particular professional area, and I'll be looking at - and for - innovations where those two fields intersect.
  • Aimed at serious readers: My intent is to be a forthright guide on energy - I'll make clear my own preferences and limits-of-knowledge, and I'll generally only include/link-to high-quality, scholarly, original data/analysis sources that I've read and trust. If you have a keen interest in energy, and generally prefer synthesizing complex material for yourself, I'll provide you with useful pointers.
  • Quality over quantity: Compared with other sites, I'm not a news service and have no obligation to cover every whiz-bang lab announcement, local project, fluffy press release, etc. I've read enough on energy to separate the wheat from the chaff, so I'll be selective, and save you time when you need the energy-big-picture.
  • Combined macro and micro experience: I'm hardly omniscient on energy or any other topic, but I've spent some years studying and communicating the macro-scale of energy history and trends, while knowing enough about energy technology and policy to program simulations of energy systems and earn a doctorate thereby.

And Your Bias Is?

That to be human is to be biased - so best to be clear and cognizant about such. With energy, I believe humanity needs to transition to sustainable/clean energy to ensure access, security, a livable planet, and long-term economic development.

  • Right now, clean energy means higher efficiency, power from wind/sun/water, smart-grid systems, and better transportation options - all available and working today, just not widely yet.
  • I think there's a good chance of "smart distributed" energy systems becoming prevalent within 1-2 decades, and distributed solar power combined with cheap scalable storage could be the surprise winner.
  • I also think clean energy subsidies and incentives are justified to overcome blatantly obvious market failures, like pollution, and market incumbency. (Outside of the frequently ideological and ahistorical energy debates in the USA, there's much less controversy on this point worldwide.)

What about:

  • Nuclear fission power? Too expensive and no one has a good solution for high-level waste. There are Gen-IV systems that supposedly solve the problem - I'll believe it when they're actually on the market, and bought by the private sector.
  • Cheap fusion power? If and when it works, I'd consider that the new clean energy. Unfortunately, we don't know when fusion will be a solved problem. And what we do know about global warming and its risks compels changes now.

The Energy Challenge in Brief

In the second decade of the 21st century, the need for a planetary shift to sustainable energy infrastructure is among the largest and most pressing of human problems. It is needed for reasons of,

  1. Energy access: Over a billion worldwide lack electricity, and twice that number lack clean cooking fuels; high quality energy sources are the absolute prerequisite for health and wealth.
  2. Energy security: Fossil fuels (esp. conventional oil) are depleting, unevenly distributed geographically, and increasingly volatile in price. A diversified energy supply boosts physical and economic security.
  3. Environmental protection: Over 2 million people die annually and prematurely from air pollution, with many more sickened, while anthropogenic climate change from dirty energy could destabilize Earth to unlivable conditions.
  4. Sustainable development: There's still plenty of debate what "sustainability" means, but having depleting, dirty, and dangerous energy powering the economy definitely isn't it. We need to decouple economic activity from worsening the planet's ecology.

There's a global consensus around the solutions, captured quite well by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Clean Energy Ministerial, and the UN. In short, we need the following pronto:

  1. Energy efficiency improvements across all sectors, e.g. retrofitting buildings and electric transportation.
  2. Renewable energy (RE) for electric power and heating: wind, solar, hydro, and biomass primarily.
  3. Policy and finance mechanisms to support the above, and fix blatant market failures - mainly unaccounted externalities (pollution and greenhouse gas emissions), and vested infrastructure/interests (utilities got legal monopolies to serve the public interest, which has now changed; and the private sector has failed to invest in energy R&D).

Changing to a global clean energy infrastructure within a few decades is certainly not easy, but well within reach. One credible and comprehensive assessment is the recent IEA report Energy Technology Perspectives 2012; below is a summary graphic forecasting the electrical power mix in 2050 (consumption will at least double from current levels). The bar-chart is organized by how much probable global warming we choose to deal with: from game-over-on-Earth 6°C (i.e. business-as-usual leading to planetary destabilization), to a difficult-but-hopefully-manageable 2°C rise requiring an immediate and sustained shift to clean energy:


Global electric power fuel mix by 2050 per scenario. From IEA ETP 2012, figure 1.10.

And what about the money needed? From the same report is a concise summary of investment requirements (Table 4.1 of ETP 2012), by energy sector and decade, in $USD trillions:

Total, USD trillions23.930.985.2

Trillions of dollars may sound crazy-large, but the overall premium through 2020 for the 2°C case is only 25% higher than the business-as-usual-we're-all-screwed 6°C scenario - because regardless of technologies chosen, a lot of new/upgraded infrastructure is needed, for a richer and larger population OR for replacing relatively ancient grids. As the nearest time period, that would also make the most difference for the future, i.e. greater investment now in efficiency and cleaner electricity & transportation will cut the bills and existential risks much more by mid-century. Indeed, the IEA forecasts that the extra money spent will easily pay for itself in net fuel savings of at least $5 trillion. That's not counting benefits in health, or avoiding global warming, or boosting energy security.

So that's the energy challenge, in brief: globally we need energy efficiency, clean power, and clean transportation supported by policy and financial means, starting yesterday. Want more detail? Read on, I'll point you to the best sources.

Energy Information - an Unabashedly Selective Guide

Energy is such a large and rapidly changing topic that staying current requires recently published works - almost always produced by sizable teams of researchers/writers with institutional sponsorship.

Big Global Energy Overviews

These resources convey a global perspective on energy:

  1. World Energy Outlook by the IEA; the premiere global status report on energy, released annually around mid-November. Not free; try your local university library for access.
  2. Global Energy Assessment - Toward a Sustainable Future by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), 2012. Comprehensive analysis by teams of experts of global energy, and also why and how the world can transition to clean energy; excellent data and well designed. Free, and both a short summary and full report are available.

Clean Energy Overviews

For energy access, energy security, environmental protection, and sustainable economic growth, clean energy is currently the best way forward:

  1. A path to sustainable energy by 2030 by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, in Scientific American; this is the shortest and easiest to read summary of how the world can move to 100% wind/water/sun energy. Free to read; you can also watch a free Google Talk by Jacobson. The scholarly version of their analysis is not free, check your university library.
  2. Energy Technology Perspectives 2012 by the IEA; targeted at policymakers and energy professionals. Comprehensive advocacy for clean energy globally, and how the latest technologies and policies should support that goal. Forecast/scenario-driven. Summaries are free, full version is not (your library may have access).
  3. Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2011. At 1088 pages, this tome is probably the most comprehensive report on renewable energy, covering technologies (6 chapters), and integration issues (4 chapters). Well-written and beautifully produced. Free.
  4. Renewables Global Status Report, by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21); published annually and covers market and policy trends, with clear visual design. No forecasts; read this to know recent history. Free.

Energy and the Environment

No current energy source is perfectly clean, but renewable energy sources have far less impact in emissions (greenhouse gases) and pollutants (e.g. coal ash/sludge/particulates, nuclear high-level waste).

  1. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Harmonization by the U.S. government's OpenEI project. Provides current data regarding CO2 emissions for all major energy technologies, using scores of studies.
  2. Coal's hidden costs - this is a news article covering the landmark 2010 study by Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School, tallying the full health and environmental costs of coal power: 9 to 25 cents/kWh extra that the public is paying for in remediation, instead of coal companies and utilities, yuck. The scholarly version is Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.


Ultimately someone - homeowner, landlord, commercial property manager, VP of Operations - has to make the decision on energy, and finance is always a major factor. There's a lot of need and room for innovation to connect capital with clean energy projects:

  1. Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment report by the Frankfurt School – UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance, 2012. Complements the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report.
  2. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) is where everyone in clean energy gets financial data from, including IEA and REN21. Much of their data is proprietary and for paying customers only, but their weekly review newsletter is free and a must-read.
  3. OpenEI Transparent Cost Database by the U.S. OpenEI program. Sourced and updated levelized-cost-of-energy numbers for all major energy technologies.


Most of the large global reports above attempt some forecasting of future energy; here a few more reports that explicitly address near-term scenarios:

  1. Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2012 by the IEA; with a 5-year window through 2017, describes expected renewable energy capacity additions, policies, and investments by region and country. Annual RE growth expected ~6%/year globally, with non-OECD countries at a higher rate. Not free, but check your university library.
  2. EIA International Energy Outlook by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA); released biannually, last was 2011.


Contrary to some ideologies and ideologues, every nation-state in history has recognized energy as too important to be left to the free market. Electricity, in particular, has been heavily regulated almost since its beginning, and because of such history, conditions for efficient market competition are mostly absent, even with recent deregulation. Thus policy intervention for clean energy is justified to correct market failures, and ensure future generations aren't long-term refugees fleeing flooded cities and encroaching deserts.

Most of the high-level global clean energy reports above have up-to-date policy discussions; the links below are to databases of regional policies:

  • Policies and Measures Database page by the IEA; links to the global renewable energy policies page, including IRENA database.
  • EU clean energy policy: RES-Legal Database of legislation on renewable energy generation.
  • USA clean energy policy: DSIRE database; also, I recommend The Dirty Energy Dilemma by Benjamin Sovacool for a comprehensive view on what's delaying clean energy in the USA.


Clean energy hardware usually gets too much attention compared to policy and finance. But after decades of empty promises and slow change, some technologies - solar, wind - are now improving at dramatic rates and already competitive with traditional power sources in some locations. Potential game-changing technologies are on the horizon too, such as widespread demand response and inexpensive scalable energy storage.

  • Global Wind Report 2011 by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC); wind power without subsidies is already cost-competitive with wholesale gas or coal power at some locations, and the price continues to drop. Free.
  • Storage technology comparisons chart by the Electricity Storage Association summarizes current storage options. Unfortunately they don't issue a periodic report.
Smart Grid

Keeping Updated

When the world's massive energy infrastructure needs to change significantly within a few decades, that means a lot of change afoot. So keep updated on the cleaner, smarter, and more collaborative energy future by subscribing to my newsletter, the Energy Scout - every 2 weeks you'll get an organized, curated list of the most important and interesting energy news and publications from around the world and across the Internet:

If you'd like, read more about the newsletter.