Understand the Future of Energy by Looking to the Past



  • Global population and economic growth will increase demand for energy.
  • Energy sources will change due to social pressures, with a shift toward domestic, low carbon, and sustainable options.

A brief energy history lesson: Whale oil was the lamp fuel of choice in the 1800s. But it had plenty of problems. Burning whale oil produced a smoke that “smelled like bacon grease” and a light that wasn’t very bright, explains Michael Webber, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering. Nevertheless, amid continued demand, whale hunting surged and the number of those marine mammals dwindled. The price of whale oil climbed.

Then along came a cleaner, cheaper alternative fuel that burned brighter and longer. “Oil saved the whales from complete extinction,” said Webber, co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator at the Austin Technology Incubator.

Although our concerns today are different, energy challenges are nothing new, as Webber demonstrated in his information-dense Texas Enterprise Speaker Series talk, “Changing the Way Business Thinks About Energy,” on April 16. Webber highlighted the energy transitions that have come before, and offered some predictions.

“Energy transitions are more typical than we might think,” Webber said. “It’s easy for us to think that the energy situation today is the way it always has been and always will [be]. That is not true.”

Webber showed how over several hundred years we’ve moved from wood to coal, then from petroleum to natural gas, and onto today’s nuclear and renewable energy alternatives. He said the trend has been toward energy sources that are less carbon-intensive and more environmentally friendly. For example, when wood was the preferred fuel, deforestation became a problem, until coal offered a better energy source. Now, of course, coal is an environmental concern. “Today’s energy solution is tomorrow’s energy problem,” Webber said.

Environmental worries are just one reason those energy transitions aren’t over. “If we think a transition is a desired societal outcome, they take a while. We’d better get started,” Webber said. “In fact, it already has started.” 

So what can we expect from energy? Webber predicts three shifts:

  • How much energy we use. He anticipates increased demand driven by global population and economic growth.
  • What we use energy for. He foresees changes in the uses of energy as the world increasingly electrifies, motorizes, urbanizes, and industrializes.  
  • What kind of fuel we use. He expects a change in sources of energy, due to social pressures, with a shift toward domestic, low carbon, and sustainable options.

“We will solve oil and coal with something else, and then that will be our problem 60 years from now,” Webber said.

Slides from his presentation are available here. For more of Webber’s thoughts on the future of energy and what that future means for business, video of his talk can be viewed below.

See video

Mentioned in this Article

Michael Webber

Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering Cockrell School of Engineering

Michael Webber is the Deputy Director of the Energy Institute, Josey Centennial Fellow in Energy Resources, Co-Director of the Clean Energy...

Michael Webber teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

About the Author

Jeremy Simon

Writer, McCombs School of Business

As a writer for Texas Enterprise, Jeremy covers business-related research and news from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition, he manages...