Watt’s Happening: Clean Energy – it’s back to the future

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

By Don Pettit

Global warming. Climate change. The greenhouse effect. Sounds like things we’ll have to worry about in the far distant future, something that our children will have to deal with. Not us. Not now.

The fact is, we are already suffering from the effects of climate change. The Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic, for instance, which essentially wiped out the pine forests of western Canada, was caused by the trend towards warmer winters in the north. It’s here. It’s happening. We’re already paying the price.

Fossil fuels have brought us to levels of prosperity and abundance unimaginable a century ago. Today, however, this trend shows signs of backfiring, as the build-up of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide and methane, continues to warm the planet and throw our weather badly out of whack.

To stabilize the weather, concerned climatologists are calling for an immediate 60 to 70 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions, with a rapid phase-out of ALL fossil fuels within 20 years. Wow, that’s a pretty tall order. Can we do it?

The good news is that a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies from the sun and wind, will not mean unemployment and hardship. To the contrary, this transition, now well underway in most of the world (Canada’s a wee bit behind on this one) will mean more jobs and a higher standard of living for most everyone. Particularly those nations, companies and individuals that take a leadership role. A look at history confirms this.


The move from oil and gas to solar and wind is not our first great energy transition. In fact, as a civilization, we’re getting pretty good at this energy transition thing.

Let’s remember that we started out with renewables, long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Wind, water and wood power brought us to the beginning of the fossil fuel age in the 1800’s. These early renewable energies were used to build the devices that allowed us to enter the coal era, an immense energy transition that took about 70 years to complete.

Then we used the coal energy to make the materials and devices that allowed us to tap into the newly discovered oil and gas reserves. Oil and gas were harder to get at than coal, but they were much more concentrated forms of stored energy, easily piped and pumped. Oil and gas brought us into yet another new, higher level of industrial efficiency and productivity – the era in which we are now living.

The move from coal to oil and gas also took about 70 years. Each energy transition has given us an energy source that is more efficient and more powerful than the one before. In spite of warnings, threats and complaints from vested energy interests at the time, an unexpected economic boom accompanied each transition. Those nations and individuals who invested early in the new energy technologies became the world leaders of the new energy era. Those who did not, but instead choose to stick with the old energy sources, fell behind.


We are now well into the next great energy transition: from oil and gas to renewable energies from the sun, wind and earth. Perhaps we are about half way through the usual 70-year time frame. In a way, it’s a transition back to the past, but with all of our modern scientific and technical knowledge to make it high-tech smart and super-efficient.

Once the renewable energy infrastructure is in place, the resource will be harvested forever, constantly replenished ever hour and every day by the forces of nature, the same forces that make our abundant planet a comfortable home for life.

Renewables do not make energy by burning fuel and so are pollution-free. They are widely distributed around the world, allowing each nation, and often each individual, to become an energy producer, not just a consumer. Renewables are extremely plentiful, and the technologies needed to harvest them are simple, reliable and easily mass-produced.

Driven by climate change, a good dose of common sense, and an immense worldwide market for clean energy technologies, the third great energy transition has begun. For humanity, it’s back to the future, again.

Don Pettit is a director of the board of Peace Energy Cooperative.

Photo Caption: We are already well into humanity’s third great energy transition. To feel the thrill and promise of a world powered by renewable energy, visit a local wind park. You’ll be impressed. (Don Pettit photo)