How did we come to rely so heavily on fossil fuels?

Just in case you did not know, the world runs on coal and oil. Yes, even today. Yes, even when there is so much din about solar power, wind power and biofuels all around.

Fossil fuels account for almost 70% of our total electricity generation, and over 97% of our motorised transportation! These stats are as of 2016, but I am not holding my breath waiting for these numbers to change significantly any time soon.

How the heck did we get here? Aren’t human beings supposed to be intelligent and all that?

Well, we came to rely so much on fossil fuels simply because

  1. They were available in plenty when they were first discovered
  2. They were available at low costs
  3. There were little or no concerns about their adverse effects on environment and climate

Owing to the above reasons, a large portion of our economic development in the last one century has been based on the use of fossil fuel – be these our buildings, our transportation or our technology.

Essentially, fossil fuels became the “dominant design” for the world’s developing infrastructure – just as, in the past 30 years, Microsoft Windows became the dominant design for all the hardware and other third party software applications.

A dominant design is a powerful concept. It ensures that competitors, collaborators and importantly innovators have to adhere to the design, and the costs of non-adherence are way too high.

In many ways, the fossil fuel triumvirate of coal, oil and gas became the dominant design for our world’s growth.

To be fair, thanks to these three, we have been able to grow super fast.

Owing to these we could grow at massive scales. Such massive growth has had the desirable effect of getting costs down to affordable levels and providing billions of us significant comforts and lifestyles unimaginable just a century ago.

Well, it really is good while it lasts. But questions about how long these fossil fuels will last, and equally important, whether it is wise to use them even if they last owing to their effects on climate change and global warming, are making the world seek alternative, more sustainable sources of energy.

Shifting from such a massive infrastructure and design laid down in the last 125 years will however require truly transformational ideas that can scale fast such that the overall “comfort ecosystem” is not disturbed.

We are yet to see such transformational ideas from cleantech. While yes, we seem to have good ideas with potential for the long term, very few if any have shown the ability to scale fast and furious without disturbing the existing ecosystem.

And there is reason why finding suitable replacements is not easy. Using a perishable, concentrated fuel source, we have grown “vertically”. At this stage, when we try to retrofit renewable energy sources that are more aligned to “horizontal” growth, we are – not surprisingly – finding it difficult.

How did we come to rely so heavily on fossil fuels? - Cleantech Guide

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