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The Slow Search for Solutions: Lessons from Historical Energy Transitions by Sector and Service

  • Roger Fouquet

This paper reviews past energy transitions by sector and service to identify features that may be useful for anticipating future transitions. As the United Kingdom was the first to make the transition from traditional energy sources to fossil fuel, its experiences may offer a unique perspective of relevance for a possible transition to a low carbon economy. Although often considered a single event, the transition from traditional energy sources to fossil fuels was complex and involved numerous services and sectors at different times between 1500 and 1920.The main drivers for the energy transitions were the opportunity to produce cheaper or better energy services. In a majority of cases, the successful new energy source or technology provided the same service (i.e. heating, power, transport or light) with superior or additional characteristics (e.g. easier, cleaner or more flexible to use). The existence of a niche market willing to pay more for these characteristics enabled the new energy source and technology to be refined gradually until they could compete with the incumbent energy source. Nevertheless, this implied that, on average, the whole innovation chain took more than one hundred years and the diffusion phase nearly fifty years. In the same way, since low-carbon energy sources and technologies are valued for their low climate impact, they will be able to develop gradually until they can compete with fossil fuels. However, for a transition to take place, low carbon energy sources and technologies will have to provide cheaper energy services – possibly helped by carbon taxes or tradable permit schemes. And, based on past experiences, a complete transition to a low carbon economy is likely to be very slow.

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Paper provided by BC3 in its series Working Papers with number 2010-05.

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Date of creation: Apr 2010
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Publication status: Published
Handle: RePEc:bcc:wpaper:2010-05
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