I think of the transition to sustainable energy as the 5th energy revolution and it might be our biggest yet. I think it helps to put things in perspective to look at it that way and it also helps us understand that computers play a vital and as of yet underutilized role in this revolution.
The five revolutions as I see them:
- Language and fire
About a million years ago humans learned to speak and at the same time. Maybe because of their newfound communication skills they managed to acquire their first energy technology: fire. This scared off mosquitos and larger preditors, made more foodcrops available by cooking them and keps us from freezing during the night. It enabled us to spread from all African homeland to all over the earth. We haven’t advanced much since then because we still produce most of our energy by burning stuff.
- Writing and agriculture
Most historians equate the rise of civilizations with the rise of agriculture in the fertile cresent and later Egypt. Agriculture vastly increased the amount of food a certain area could produce and enabled the creation of foodstores and permanent dwellings. To organize all this we needed to keep stock of who had produced what. Fortunately we had just gotten the idea that we could mark things down.
- Printing and steam engines
Our modern industrial era could be termed “rise of the machines”. We have increased the amount of energy at our disposal more than 200 fold since 1800 by feeding it to machines that do our bidding. The first generation of machines where steam engines and they ate coal, just like most of our contemporary power plants. Machines complicated things and needed manuals, and the industries around them needed adminstration. So the rise of the machines was made possible – at least in part – by an educated populace who had learned how to read and write and by the printing press that increased the dissemination of written information a millionfold.
- Realtime communication and cars
About a 100 years ago our rate of travel increased tremendously. First with coal-fired ships and trains and then cars that drove using “black gold” as it was called. Never before have we so quickly and massively embraced a new source of energy. Every month we use more energy burning oil than the Egyptions produced with aggriculture in a thousand years. It sparked the age of globalization that would lead to two world wars, a cold war, a man on the moon en the earth as we know it. Real time communication was instrumental in creating the global village we now live in.
- Computers and sustainable energy
We are in the middle of a switch to sustainable energy. The climate summit in Paris underscored that we consider fossil energy something of the past and every year we add more sustainable than fossil energy to our global capacity. Sustainable energy based on the sun will last practically forever without degrading the environment we live in and it’s getting cheaper every year. Computers help us to design and coordinate this new sustainable energy ecosystem. But we need to do it fast because we are depleting the earth and destoying our ecosystem at an unprecedented rate.
Now of course you could define more or less transitions and you can just as easily call them revolutions. What’s important is that this illustrates that this energy transition is reshaping our entire society from the bottom up.