How Long Will It Take? Conceptualizing the Temporal Dynamics of Energy Transitions

April 20, 2016 | 00:00
How Long Will It Take? Conceptualizing the Temporal Dynamics of Energy Transitions
How Long Will It Take? Conceptualizing the Temporal Dynamics of Energy Transitions
Transitioning away from our current global energy system is of paramount importance. The speed at which a transition can take place — its timing, or temporal dynamics — is a critical element of consideration. This study therefore investigates the issue of time in global and national energy transitions by asking: What does the mainstream academic literature suggest about the time scale of energy transitions? Additionally, what does some of the more recent empirical data related to transitions say, or challenge, about conventional views? In answering these questions, the article presents a “mainstream” view of energy transitions as long, protracted affairs, often taking decades to centuries to occur. However, the article then offers some empirical evidence that the predominant view of timing may not always be supported by the evidence. With this in mind, the final part of the article argues for more transparent conceptions and definitions of energy transitions, and it asks for analysis that recognizes the causal complexity underlying them.



This is an excerpt of the academic research paper by Benjamin K. Sovacool. The entire paper was first published in the March edition of Energy Research & Social Science as an Open Access article under a CC-BY licence.




Transitioning away from our current global energy system is of paramount importance [1]. As Grubler compellingly writes, “the need for the ‘next’ energy transition is widely apparent as current energy systems are simply unsustainable on all accounts of social, economic, and environmental criteria [2]”. And as Miller et al. add, “the future of energy systems is one of the central policy challenges facing industrial countries [3]”. Unfortunately, however, neither private markets nor government agencies seem likely to spur a transition on their own [4]. Moreover, transitions to newer, cleaner energy systems such as sources of renewable electricity [5] and [6] or electric vehicles [7] and [8] often require significant shifts not only in technology, but in political regulations, tariffs and pricing regimes, and the behavior of users and adopters.

The speed at which a transition can take place—its timing, or temporal dynamics—is a vital element of consideration. According to the International Energy Agency, for example, if “action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time [9]”. In other words, if a transition does not occur quickly, or soon, it may be too late. Giddens went so far as to call this the “climate paradox”, the fact that by the time humanity may come to fully realize how much they need to shift to low-carbon forms of energy, they will have already passed the point of no return [10].

This study, therefore, investigates the critical issue of time in global and national energy transitions. Although other elements of transitions such as their scale, magnitude, direction, drivers, actors, and mechanisms are touched upon when exploring this theme, the article's central purpose is to ask: What does the mainstream academic literature suggest about the time scale of energy transitions? In addition, what does some of the more recent empirical data related to transitions say, or challenge, about the mainstream view?

In answering these questions, the article proceeds as follows. It begins by presenting a mainstream view of energy transitions as long, protracted affairs, often taking decades to centuries to occur. Part of this argument draws from the history of previous major energy transitions such as the switch from wood to coal or coal to oil. Part of this argument also draws on the sheer scale and complexity involved in major transitions, as well as the tendency for new systems to face the “lock-in” or “path dependency” of existing systems. However, the article then offers some empirical evidence that the predominant view of timing may not always be supported by the evidence.

The second half of the paper shows that there have been many transitions—at varying scales and sectors—that have occurred quite quickly — that is, between a few years and a decade or so, or within a single generation. At smaller scales, the adoption of cookstoves, air conditioners, and flex-fuel vehicles are excellent examples. At the state or national scale, almost complete transitions to oil and electricity in Kuwait, natural gas in the Netherlands, and nuclear electricity in France took only a decade, roughly, to occur. This part of the article presents ten case studies of energy transitions that, in aggregate, affected almost one billion people and needed only 1–16 years to unfold. Clearly, this evidence suggests that some energy transitions can occur much more quickly than commonly believed.

Read the entire paper.



1. K. Riahi, F. Dentener, Dolf Gielen, Arnulf Grubler, Z. Klimont, V. Krey, David L. McCollum, et al., Energy pathways for sustainable development. In global energy assessment: toward a sustainable future, in: T homas B. Johansson, N. Nakicenovic, A. Patwardan, L. Gomez-Echeveri (Eds.), Global Energy Assessment: Towards a More Sustainable Future, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York,USA, 2012, pp. 1203–1306.

2. Grubler Arnulf, Energy transitions research insights and cautionary tales, Energy Policy 50 (November) (2012) 8–18.

3. Clark A. Miller, Alastair Iles, Christopher F. Jones, The social dimensions of energy transitions, Sci. Cult. 22 (No. 2) (2013) 135–148.

4. Robert W. Fri, Maxine L. Savitz, Rethinking energy innovation and social science, Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 1 (March) (2014) 183–187.

5. B.K. Sovacool, Rejecting renewables: the socio-technical impediments to renewable electricity in the United States, Energy Policy 37 (November (11)) (2009) 4500–4513.

6. J.P. Painuly, Barriers to renewable energy penetration; a framework for analysis, Renew. Energ. 24 (2001) 73–89.

7. B.K. Sovacool, R.F. Hirsh, Beyond batteries: an examination of the benefits and barriers to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) transition, Energy Policy 37 (March (3)) (2009) 1095–1103.

8. J.R. Nielsen, et al., Of ‘White Crows’ and ‘Cash Savers:’ A qualitative study of travel behavior and perceptions of ridesharing in Denmark, Transp. Res. Part A 78 (August) (2015) 113–123.

9. International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook, OECD, Paris, 2012, pp. p3.

10. Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change, Polity, New York, 2009.



Dr. Benjamin K. Sovacool is Director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology (Center for Energiteknologier) at AU-Herning and Professor of Business and Social Sciences at Aarhus University (Århus Universitet) in Denmark.

This is an excerpt of the academic research paper by Benjamin K. Sovacool. The entire paper was first published in the March edition of Energy Research & Social Science as an Open Access article under a CC-BY licence.
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