The industrial revolution was already in full swing in 1814 when self-taught mechanical engineer George Stephenson conducted the first practical demonstration of a steam locomotive. Stephenson’s engine, which ran on a track laid in England’s industrial heartland near the city of Newcastle, managed to haul eight wagons loaded with 30 tons of coal at a speed of 4 mph during its maiden voyage. The locomotive may not have been fast, even by the standards of the time, but its freight was completely appropriate. England was the world’s leading industrial power largely because of Newcastle’s rich coal deposits, and Stephenson’s engine could not have managed even its modest speed without burning coal.
Coal production surged 500 percent between 1700 and 1850, making the early Industrial Revolution the age of coal. Still, coal’s dominance was only temporary. Winston Churchill’s decision to convert the vaunted British fleet from coal power to oil power in 1912 signaled the rise of a new energy source. Ahead of his time in many things, Churchill proved prophetic about oil as well. By the end of the 20th century, oil accounted for 40 percent of the world’s energy mix.
Despite the important role both oil and coal still play in today’s energy landscape, recent data trends suggest the world is heading toward a more diversified mix of energy sources. While oil will likely remain the predominant fuel well into the 21st century, in its Outlook for Energy, ExxonMobil forecasts that natural gas will displace coal as the second-largest source of energy. Moreover, the report forecasts that electricity generated from nuclear power will about double, while electricity from wind and solar will increase in total by about 350 percent. Together, additional nuclear and renewable energy electricity supplies are likely to meet approximately 60 percent of the growth in global demand in the next 25 years.
The new energy mix will address the demands of a growing global economy, and also help substantially reduce energy-related CO2 emissions per unit of economic output. Reflecting efficiency gains and the growing prevalence of less carbon-intensive energy sources, including natural gas, nuclear power and renewables, carbon intensity of the global economy will fall by about 45 percent over the next quarter century.
Ultimately, expanding options for energy sources in the 21st century should be good news — both economically and environmentally. More carbon-efficient power sources will help curb emissions, while technology-enabled resources continue to help promote abundant and diverse supplies to meet rising global energy needs.
We’ve certainly come a long way since Stephenson’s plodding locomotive brought the coals to Newcastle.