The coming sustainable energy transition: History, strategies, and outlook

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Facing global climate change and scarce petroleum supplies, the world must switch to sustainable energy systems. While historical transitions between major energy sources have occurred, most of these shifts lasted over a century or longer and were stimulated by resource scarcity, high labor costs, and technological innovations. The energy transition of the 21st century will need to be more rapid. Unfortunately, little is known about how to accelerate energy transitions. This article reviews past transitions and factors behind them, along with their time frames. Three modern case studies are discussed: Brazil, which shifted from an oil-based transportation system to one based on sugarcane-ethanol (success); France, which shifted from oil-fired electric power to nuclear power (success); and the United States, which attempted to shift from foreign oil to a mix of domestic energy resources (failure). Lessons from these attempts to govern energy transitions are discussed. Several policy instruments to accelerate a transition are identified, though even under ideal circumstances a global energy supply transition will be very slow. Given the need to simultaneously implement programs in countries with different political economies, a greater focus on energy efficiency, promotion of Smart Grids, and possibly a new treaty should yield more timely results. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd.

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Energy Policy