The Third Industrial Revolution is Here
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I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.—Abraham Lincoln
Not long after people had begun the quantum leap from horse and buggy to automobiles, and in the face of profound skepticism about whether it was possible, two bicycle mechanics from Ohio overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to build and fly the world’s first airplane.
These disruptive societal transformations were enabled by human ingenuity and fossil fuels with incredible energy density. The Industrial Revolution and the ensuing Technological Revolution have been powered by coal, oil and gas and now we are crossing the threshold into what Jeremy Rifkin calls the Third Industrial Revolution, whereby renewable energy and electric transportation will converge to enable the transition from a fossil fuel-powered society to a sustainable clean energy society.
This next transition is every bit as daunting as what the Wright brothers faced at the beginning of the 20th century. With 7 billion humans burning fossil fuels in earth’s closed atmosphere and expected growth to 9 billion over the next two decades, carbon emissions are one of the world’s most urgent existential threats.
Cause for hope can be found in the freshly minted Paris climate agreement, under which industrialized nations and the rest of the world have finally committed to serious reductions in carbon emissions. Obama’s Clean Power Plan coupled with the extension of solar and wind tax credits are evidence that the world’s highest per capita carbon emitter (America) is trying to get its act together.
At ReVision Energy we are optimistic because we are witnessing northern New England’s gradual transition to a clean energy economy. In 2015 we built the region’s first net zero school, the first net zero food production facility and the first net positive office building that will produce more solar electricity than it uses every year for the next 40 years:
This year I am driving my kids in a solar-powered, zero emission electric car (roughly 50% of U.S. carbon pollution comes from transportation) to their hockey practices at one of the region’s first solar-powered ice rinks.
The clean energy transition is gaining momentum worldwide. Ignoring the Volkswagen emissions scandal for a moment, it’s worth noting that in 2015 both Germany and Denmark had days when production from their wind and solar facilities exceeded total national energy demand under ideal conditions when the wind was blowing hard and the sun was shining brightly. Although both countries still rely on diminishing amounts of fossil fuels to fill the intermittent gaps of renewable resources, they are making steady progress toward their goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050.
In the spirit of the Wright Brothers, this year the first solar-powered plane is circumnavigating the globe:
The first solar-powered boat is circumnavigating the oceans:
And Norway recently launched the world’s first all-electric commercial fishing boat:
The technology we are going to need for the clean energy revolution continues to emerge. Energy storage and microgrids are just beginning to enable the integration of renewable energy, batteries and smart grids so that communities can be wholly self-sustaining when the utility grid is down and grid-supporting when it is up.
This clean energy transition represents the same colossal scale of job opportunities that resulted from the build-out of the industrial revolution and its roads, bridges, dams and communication infrastructure. Although we have immense challenges yet to overcome, we can see proverbial light at the end of a decades-long tunnel to the clean energy future and take inspiration from the reality that getting there represents one of the greatest economic and environmental opportunities in the history of mankind.