The biggest cause of rising atmospheric CO2 has been the burning of coal to make electricity.
Our love affair with Electricity goes back to the late 1800’s. Wikipedia tells us the world’s first public electricity supply was provided in late 1881, when the streets of the Surrey town of Godalming in the UK were lit with electric light.
The fundamental principles of electricity generation were discovered in the 1820s and early 1830s by British scientist Michael Faraday. His method, still used today, is for electricity to be generated by the movement of a loop of wire between the poles of a magnet. Central power stations became economically practical with this development of alternating current . AC power transmission, using power transformers to transmit power at high voltage (and hence with relatively low loss) became pretty much the standard globally.
Contrary to popular (American) belief – it was Faraday, NOT Edison, NOT Tesla, that gave the world Electricity as we now know it.
Commercial electricity production had started in Britain in 1870 with the coupling of a dynamo to a hydraulic turbine. So, perhaps presciently, the first industrial-scale electricity produced was 100% ‘renewable’ Hydro-electricity.
It may be argued that the mechanical production of electric power, by burning coal to make steam to drive turbines, began the Second Industrial Revolution and made possible several inventions using electricity, such as Edison’s much vaunted light bulb (which Sir Joseph Swan had already invented and deployed in the UK!) and the various types of electric motor that powered the machines that made everything.
A power utility’s ability to make and distribute vast amounts of AC electricity, generated by coal-powered steam-turbine-driven generators enabled a coal-mine to tether to a single, local customer, with a much simpler supply chain. It also allowed miners to hide the fact that ‘dirty’ coal produced smoke and CO2 (millions of tonnes thereof) using the facade of ‘clean electricity’ – which was clean only at the point of delivery – in the cities! The smoke and CO2 were generally being produced somewhere out in the countryside, near a coal mine, where, presumably, nobody would want to live!
This centralised-generation grid-distributed ‘public utility’ model played well across the world. It allowed government’s to legislate and regulate the effective monopoly to ensure the delivery of electricity – the ultimate economic lifeblood according to The World Bank. It made citizens comfortable with the idea that it was OK to leave the complexity of electricity to others – as ‘the government regulator’ was looking after their best interests. It also suited Capitalism’s preference to leverage capital at scale. And it suited coal mine owners, too, for obvious reasons. So, happiness all round then?
Of course, the above large-scale grid-delivered, centrally-generated electricity utility businesses quickly learned the value of ‘regulatory capture’. Some for enhanced profits, most for control – the ability to maintain the status quo. Therein lies the rub.
The status quo mindset is somewhat resistant to new ideas. New ideas such as: carbon pricing, solar photo-voltaics, windmills, geothermal energy, batteries, etc. Moreover ‘regulated utilities’ feel very threatened by the likes of peer-to-peer trading of domestic or community solar power. They also worry about ‘stranded assets’ and do everything they can to protect their current assets (pun intended).
Having convinced government of their economic necessity – government too steps in to defend the utilities’ status quo! Hence our government’s generally pitiful renewables targets.
Let’s not forget Rupert Murdoch’s role in all of this – after all was it not his stated view that “monopolies are terrible – until you have one” ? His rampant climate denialism – through his many media channels – has maintained his fossil-fuel friends’ monopolies – ensuring his own.