Part 2 of a 10-part series on how energy, technology, sunshine, carbon, grass, soil, cows, birds and the prosperity of all life on Earth are connected.
In Part 1, hopefully you got the point – I have an energy obsession. I want to help you see how that’s related to how Earth works and how all that is connected to grass, soil, cows and birds. But first I need to back up to illuminate one key principle – big changes happen slowly. Said differently, revolutions happen by way of evolution. So here we go…
This is a what we call a set of “S curves.”
The green line shows the population of a new thing growing, and the red line shows the population of the old thing that it’s replacing. Such curves are widely used in everything from biology to marketing to describe how a new product or species penetrates a population over time. It can be used to model the population growth of rabbits, the replication of bacteria, the spread of a pandemic, and as you’ll see, the diffusion of technological innovations - including energy.
However, our human minds don’t grasp such curves very intuitively. Our minds are more calibrated to the center of it where big changes seem to come out of nowhere and happen fast. Innovations like the internet, iphones, and digital cameras all seem to come from nowhere and catch us by surprise. In my experience, this limited ability to “see” s-curves is a reflection of the fact that our human brains are wired to live in a linear world.
So I’m going to share a secret with you – even though we humans don’t grasp s-curves well, a simple trick of mathematics can act like a microscope for “s curves.” It allows us to “see” big changes coming sooner. If I take that same data from above, but plot the ratio of the new thing (green) to the old thing(red), then plot that data in a logarithmic axis, we get this – a wonderful straight line:
In math, straight lines are our friends as they are easy to fit and project. Note that I’ve plotted 5 data points on both charts. Even though your eye doesn’t see them the same, those really are the exact same 5 data points. But note that whereas they’re all bunched up in the lower portion of the first chart, I can see how nicely they spread out on a straight line in the second. Because this is a ratio of new to old (not total), when the ratio is 1 on this chart, this means there are as many new things as old, which also means that the new is then 50% of the total.
What this means is that when we look at data of evolving trends in such dimensions, we actually can see big changes coming early because such a scaling allows us to amplify things that are happening in initially small proportions.
So now let’s go off one again to Russ’ magic energy spreadsheet archives to show you one of my favorites – the historical s-curve behavior nuclear power as it developed differently in the USA and France. Note that just like the above examples, this is the same data just on two different scales:
I just love this one as it shows how not only did the US and French nuclear technology diffusion curves behave similarly, they actually fit on exactly the same line. It was as if the Americans and French decided together to start an industry on the same day and then grew those industries using clone management teams with the same budgets.
But note what happens in 1979. The US takes a right turn at ~12% market share and settles onto a plateau of ~20% of total US electricity generation. However, French nuclear power just keeps growing. Some of you will remember or have learned that 1979 was the “Three Mile Island” incident. It is clear from such data that the US hit the pause button in 1979, and France kept rocking on until it reached an apparent saturation point at nearly 80% of its total electricity use in only 10 more years!
To me, this nuclear case serves a valuable lesson. The s-curve trend isn’t a prediction of what would happen, it’s a description of what could happen. What it effectively captures is the entirety of the evolutionary system that any technology has to go through to diffuse through a market or ecosystem. That includes capital spending, human education, policy, the rate of scientific progress, market demand, etc. – anything that might have an impact as to fast change can happen. Effectively, once a trend has formed, it serves as an upper limit to how fast the penetration of the new might replace the old.
So now let’s look at the evolving energy system today. Below is the special semi-log chart of the ratio of renewable to non-renewable energy of the entirety of the world’s energy system since 1965. See how since 2001, it’s been taking off in a remarkably straight line?
See how since 2001, it’s been taking off in a remarkably straight line? The world has been making truly remarkable progress in accelerating the development of low-carbon renewable energy for the last 20 years. That’s a good thing!
But you’ll see that I’ve calculated what we call a “regression” line through that data so we can project it into the future. Below is that same data, but now with that regression line projected out into the future, but now on a linear scale and now presented in terms of renewable energy as a fraction of total energy.
What this suggests is that if we keep growing renewable energy at a pace similar to recent history, this is likely as good as we could do. On the one hand, it’s pretty remarkable. It suggests that we could be deriving already 50% of our energy from renewable sources by the mid 2040’s, and reach 90% by the early 2060’s. That’s a crazy world-transforming change in just the next 20 years. For now, let’s call this my “optimistic” projection – i.e. what’s possible if everything stays on trend, not an actual prediction. Again, this projection is not just unfounded fantasy, but is anchored in real trends already well underway.
That might be cause for celebration, but stay tuned for Part 3, where I’ll discuss the implications of this optimistic possibility, why it’s still not good enough (hint: there still would be too much carbon going into the atmosphere), and what options we have to fix that. I know it sounds crazy, but that will then set the foundation for us to return to talk about what cows, grass, soil, sunshine and birds have to do with any of this.
Co-Founder & CEO of Blue Nest Beef