Visualizing A Sustainable Energy Future

12 Min Read

January 12, 2024

Cutler J. Cleveland is the Founder and Co-Director of Visualizing Energy. He is a Professor of Earth and Environment and Associate Director of the Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University. Heather Clifford is the Co-Director and Chief Data Scientist for Visualizing Energy. She holds a PhD in Climate Science from the University of Maine. 

We are in the early stages of a seismic energy transition. Such transitions coincide with major shifts in human well-being and the health of the Earth’s natural systems. The discovery of fire and the agricultural revolution dramatically improved food security, lengthening life expectancy and enabling the population to expand. The Industrial Revolution was powered by the steam engine and accelerated by the internal combustion engine and other devices that use fossil fuels. Average individual well-being improved dramatically while the overall population grew eightfold since 1800.

The main storyline of improvements in the human condition has two concurrent threads. The first is the massive increase in the extraction and processing of energy and materials and the inescapable release of wastes, which has dramatically deteriorated the natural systems that support all life on the planet. Climate change is the penultimate example. The second thread is the persistent inequity in life opportunities within and among nations, including the disproportionate sharing of costs and benefits from economic growth, pollution, and climate change. The disparity in access to clean, affordable energy services is a key driver of inequity.

Individuals, governments, and companies from the local to global scale call for a carbon-neutral energy system. But there is deep disagreement, uncertainty, bias, and ignorance about our choices and their consequences. This is true not only for technical issues but also for important questions related to equity, such as who bears the cost and benefits and who participates in the decision-making process.

Enter Visualizing Energy, a new project of the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability. It is an open access, interdisciplinary science communication project that aims to increase actionable knowledge about a sustainable and just energy transition. The project knits data analysis, visualizations, and the written word into stories that reveal how our energy system can be transformed to reduce inequity, steer humanity from climate disaster, improve health and other social outcomes, and lead to healthy natural systems. Visualizing Energy is a public good; its motivations and methods are transparent, and its data products are freely available to all.

The project’s initial focus is on three interconnected areas: the connection between energy and human well-being; the history of energy transitions; and equity issues surrounding energy transitions (energy justice, energy burden, energy poverty, energy insecurity). 

Studying the history of energy informs current constraints and opportunities, as illustrated by the United States. Energy use in 2000 was nearly ten times as great as it was in 1900, and in 1900 it was eighteen times as great as it was in 1800. The secular increase in energy use was driven by increases in population, economic growth, affluence, and technology. The impacts of major geopolitical and economic events are clearly visible: the Great Depression, major recessions, world wars, the oil price shocks of the 1970s and 1980s, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first century of energy use was largely about America’s prodigious forests, fodder and food were the other early sources of energy. Even as late as the first decade of the 20th century there were about 30 million horses and mules and about 100 million people in the country, and their fuel accounted for about 6% of energy use.

The first major energy source transition was the substitution of coal for fuelwood. That substitution began in earnest in the mid-19th century and was largely complete by World War I, at which time coal accounted for about three-quarters of national energy use. The second major energy source transition was the substitution of oil (beginning 1910s) and then natural gas (beginning 1930s) for coal. This substitution was largely complete by the early 1970s. The increase in oil and gas was enabled by the advent of the internal combustion engine, advances in oil refining, and the expansion of the national gas pipeline network, among many other drivers.

The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to minimize the adverse effects of climate change has generated an enormous investigation of how renewable and other low-carbon sources can replace fossil fuels, the practicality of negative emissions technologies, and how fast this transition can and should happen. Regarding the United States, one thing is clear: if a rapid transition is underway, it is in a nascent stage. In 2021, fossil fuels accounted for more than 80% of primary energy use. Solar and wind are rapidly expanding in electricity generation, but the overall contribution of low-carbon energy is still small.

Interactive visualizations help us understand where clean energy is being rapidly deployed. Germany and Spain launched the modern solar photovoltaic (PV) industry with power plants coming online in the mid-2000s in the 20 to 60 MW range. They were quickly followed by China, the United States, South Africa, Japan, India, Germany, Turkey, France, and other European countries. In recent years China has accounted for nearly one-third of new capacity additions in the world. By the end of 2021, at least seven countries had enough PV capacity installed to meet at least 10% of their electricity demand from solar PV. Despite this rapid progress, solar and wind combined accounted for just 10% of total global electricity generation in 2021, indicating the need for a renewed emphasis on changes in technology, policy, and consumer behaviors to shift electricity generation to climate-friendly sources.

Visualizations help identify key leverage points in greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation. Methane is a potent GHG, accounting for about 20% of anthropogenic global warming since 1750. Coal mining accounts for about one-third of methane emissions from all fossil fuel activities, and about 12% of all anthropogenic sources of methane. Of the approximately 2800 operating coal mines, just 25 mines release about 10% of all emissions (all but two of those mines are in China). The top 309 mines release half of the total emissions, while less than half of the world’s coal mines account for 90% of methane emissions. The 1000 smallest emitters account for less than 2% of emissions.

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