By the middle of the sixteenth century, the forests of England and Scotland had been severely depleted — the harvested timber had been used to build and heat homes in rapidly growing metropolitan areas like London and Edinburgh.
Tall trees that remained were considered a strategic resource — they were the material used to build England’s mighty warships and their great masts.
The English began to burn “black rocks” to substitute for the rare commodity of wood and timber at this time. According to historian and author of Energy: A Human History, Richard Rhodes, the initial transition was not an easy or pleasant one.
The clergy — whose ranks formed the backbone of the intellectual elite of the day — found eerie parallels between the subterranean, sulfur-scented smoking stones, and substances that might be found in the eternal abode of disbelievers and heretics.
Coal was thus given the appellation of “ Satan’s Excrement.”
As coal became harder to find, various technological advances in metallurgy and mining were developed to exploit the resource. These advances enabled greater supplies at lower prices. This increased supply of easily portable energy spurred innovative technologists of the time to think of new ways to centralize and standardize the production of a wide range of goods.
Et voila! The Industrial Revolution was born.
This week, the BBC reported that Britain — a small island country whose worldwide empire was built on wealth generated by coal-powered manufacturing — has gone a full two months without burning any coal for its national electric grid.
This announcement is more amazing when one realizes that only 10 years ago, about 40% of Britain’s National Grid system was supplied by coal-fired plants.
The historic no-coal milestone was brought about partly by decreased demand for electricity during the Covid-19 lockdowns, but I maintain hope that the change will prove more durable and that the switch-over will serve as a symbolic bookend to human civilization’s 500-year reliance on fossil fuels.
It is true that another fossil fuel — natural gas — is now the largest source of electricity generation in Britain, but my bet, based on conversations I’ve been having and the articles I have been reading lately, is that the heyday of natural gas will soon be at a close as well.
The combustion of natural gas generates less CO2 emissions than coal, which is why it has been considered a good “bridge fuel” to help civilization transition to renewable energy sources. However, despite the relative cleanliness of burning, the mining, extraction, and transportation of natural gas generates a great deal of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.
Even erstwhile supporters of natural gas as a transition fuel are starting to wonder how effective of a bridge it really is, especially considering the rapidly falling price of renewable generation and storage capacity.
For example, earlier this month Bloomberg reported that the winning bid for an Indian contract to generate round-the-clock renewable energy was lower than the price of coal-fired generation. From this anecdote, it seems like the natural gas transition game may at least be entering the final innings.
What will the future of energy generation and storage look like? I have been reminded lately that paradigm shifts often produce innovations fundamentally very different in form and function from those that we are used to seeing, so we may be surprised.
Those who are far-sighted and bold enough will profit. Those who cling to untenable realities of yesterday will fail. Intelligent investors take note.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.