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Energy innovation and energy “transition” are today’s hot topics. President Barack Obama aims to have 20% of U.S. electricity come from wind and solar by 2030. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has gone one better: A few weeks ago, she pledged that, within 10 years of her taking office, there would be enough renewable electricity to power every home in America. That would certainly be a sprint, given that wind and solar now account for less than 6% of our electricity.

Some are more cautious about such prospects. Bill Gates recently committed $2 billion to “breakthrough” energy innovation because he is convinced that current technologies can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions—and the human contribution to climate change—only at costs that he has called “beyond astronomical.”

One thing is certain: Over the next few months, with the approach of December’s big climate-change conference in Paris—more than 190 countries are expected to attend—the discussion will grow more intense over how quickly the planet can move away from coal, oil and natural gas and toward a low-carbon future.

Such energy transitions are nothing new. They have been going on for more than two centuries. They have been transformative and undoubtedly will be again—but if history teaches anything, it is that they don’t happen fast.

In 1824, a young French scientist and engineer named Sadi Carnot published a paper on “the motive force of fire.” His aim was to explain the workings of an amazing half-century-old invention: James Watt ’s steam engine. His explanation—the “Carnot cycle”—is still taught to engineers. Carnot was convinced that this new technology was a critical factor in Britain’s defeat of France in the Napoleonic wars, and he wanted to ensure that his countrymen could gain the same technological mastery.

But Carnot also saw in the steam engine “a great revolution” in human civilization—the harnessing of energy on a scale that would transform the world. Indeed, the steam engine set off the first major transition in world energy. Instead of relying on biomass—wood, agricultural residue and waste—as it had done for more than 400,000 years, humanity began to move to coal.

We think of the 19th century as the era of coal, but as the distinguished Canadian energy economist Vaclav Smil has pointed out, coal only reached 5% of world energy supply in 1840, and it didn’t get to 50% until about 1900.

The modern oil industry began in 1859, but it took more than a century for oil to eclipse coal as the world’s No. 1 source. “The most important historical lesson,” Dr. Smil says, is that “energy resources require extended periods of development.”

A no less important lesson is that, even as newer sources overtake older ones, they also overlay them; the older hardly go away. Oil may have overtaken coal as the world’s top energy source in the 1960s, but since then, global coal consumption has tripled.

Previous transitions have occurred because of new technology and applications, changing costs and prices, and concerns about energy security. Today it is climate-change policy that is pushing the transition, seeking to replace lower-cost energy with what is, at least for now, higher-cost energy. The cost gap is currently being closed by a host of subsidies, incentives and regulations and by advances in technology and manufacturing.


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