A Brief History of Energy Use

Energy is the ability to do work. In a number of ways it is absolutely essential for human existence: from the sun's energy that heats the earth and makes it habitable; to the energy stored in plants and animals that humans consume to keep their bodies running.

Preindustrial British Columbia Sidebar

Within human society when complexity increases there is a matching rise in energy use and, as we can see around all around us, modern civilization is becoming more complex by the day. With increased energy use mankind has more power to alter the environment around him, to produce more food, build bigger and better shelters, and devote more time to leisure. As the anthropologist Leslie White once explained "Other things being equal, the degree of cultural development varies directly as the amount of energy per capita per year put to work." Energy = Civilization.

For all but a tiny sliver of mankind's 50,000 year history, the use of energy has been severely limited. For most of it the only source of energy humans could draw upon was the most basic: human muscle. The discovery of fire and the burning of wood, animal dung and charcoal helped things along by providing an immediate source of heat. Next came domestication, about 12,000 years ago, when humans learned to harness the power of oxen and horses to plough their fields and drive up crop yields.

The only other readily accessible sources of power were the forces of wind and water. Sails were erected on ships during the Bronze Age, allowing people to move and trade across bodies of water. Windmills and water-wheels came later, in the first millennium BCE, grinding grain and pumping water. These provided an important source of power in ancient times. They remained the most powerful and reliable means to utilize energy for thousands of years, until the invention of the steam engine.

A windmill in Sussex, England
A windmill in Sussex, England. These were among the greatest sources of energy in pre-industrial societies.

Measured in modern terms, these powerful pre-industrial water-wheels couldn't easily generate more than 4 kW of power. Wind mills could do 1 to 2 kW. This state of affairs persisted for a very long time:

"Human exertions… changed little between antiquity and the centuries immediately preceding industrialization. Average body weights hardly increased. All the essential devices providing humans with a mechanical advantage have been with us since the time of the ancient empires, or even before that."

With less energy use, the world was only able to support a small population, perhaps as little as 200 million at 1 CE, and gradually climbing to ~800 million in 1750 at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Industrial Civilization

Near the end of the 18th century, in a wave of unprecedented innovation and advancement, Europeans began to unlock the potential of fossil fuels. It began with coal. Though the value of coal for its heating properties had been known for thousands of years, it was not until James Watt's enhancement of the steam engine that coal's power as a prime mover was unleashed.

The steam engine was first used to pump water out of coal mines in 1769. These first steam pumps were crude and inefficient. Nevertheless by 1800 these designs managed a blistering output of 20 kW, rendering water-wheels and wind-mills obsolete.

Some historians regard this moment as the most important in human history since the domestication of animals. The energy intensity of coal and the other fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) absolutely dwarfed anything mankind had ever used before. Many at the time failed to realize the significance of fossil fuels. Napoleon Bonaparte, when first told of steam-ships, scoffed at the idea, saying "What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense."

Nevertheless, the genie was now out of the bottle and there was no going back. The remainder of the 19th Century saw a cascade of inventions and innovations hot on the steam engine's heels. These resulted from the higher amounts of energy available, as well as to improved metalworking (through the newly-discovered technique of coking coal).

In agrarian societies, untouched by industrialization, the population growth rate remains essentially zero. However, in the 1700 and 1800s, these new energy harnessing technologies brought about a farming, as well as an industrialization revolution, profoundly changing man's relation to the world around him. Manufactured metal farm implements, nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and farm tractors all brought crop yields to previously unbelievable levels. Population growth rates soared and these developments enabled a population explosion in all industrialized states.

Flyer 1, the first flight.
The first powered flight, Flyer 1 leaves the ground on December 17, 1903.

Transport was revolutionized by steam-powered boats and trains. Steam ships (1807) could sail against the winds, and steam locomotives (1804) could move large quantities of goods 10 times faster than was previously possible. The obvious advantages of oil as a transport fuel -- its higher energy density and ease of transportation -- made it an appealing avenue of investigation for tinkerers, and the internal combustion engine was gradually developed over the course of the century. In 1885 Karl Benz invented the car. In 1903 the Wright Brothers' Flyer I went on its inaugural flight mounted with an internal combustion engine burning gasoline.

Michael Faraday first proved the feasibility of converting mechanical energy into electrical energy in 1831. By 1872, Thomas Edison had invented the light bulb, and in 1882 led development of the first commercial power plant, running on coal. Hydro-electric power was first tested and deployed soon after. Electrification proceeded at an astonishing pace.

All these new fossil-fuel based technologies unleashed creative energies and allowed an exponential increase in the populations and the standards of living in industrialized states. This economic realignment had enormous negative effects: environmental degradation, inequality, and the empowering of industrialized states to dominate weaker ones.

If the 19th Century was the proving ground for our modern-day fossil-fuel economy, the 20th Century saw the amplification of those trends, with exponential increases in energy consumption and rapid improvements in technology in every field. Coal consumption grew from a billion tonnes per year in 1910 to nearly five billion in 1990. Oil surged from 10 million tonnes a year in the late 1880s to 3 billion tonnes in 1990. Natural gas, which was only economic to use for power generation after the Second World War, went from two billion cubic feet a year in 1910 to two trillion in 1990.

The energy historian Vaclav Smil compares the total useful energy derived from fossil fuels to the primary energy form in pre-industrial terms and across many parts of the developing world today: biomass. "In terms of useful energy, the contributions of coal and biomass (burning wood, charcoal and animal dung) became equal sometime during the 1890s… By 1950 commercial energies delivered about five times as much useful energy as biomass. By 1990 this difference grew to more than twenty times." And during this time the use of biomass in the developing world did not decrease; instead it tripled.

Global energy consumption, by source.
Global energy consumption, by source. As can be seen, fossil fuels account for over 3/4th of the world's total energy supply.

The energy boom allowed the population boom to continue unabated. Global population was around 800 million in 1750. By 1900, 150 years later, it had doubled to 1.6 billion. It doubled again about 63 years after that. In 2005, it doubled again, to 6.5 billion, just over forty years since the last doubling.

By the end of the 20th Century, industrial states were almost fully adapted to fossil fuels. Coal and natural gas provide the majority of power generation; oil remains king of transportation, and is essential in many industrial processes like making plastics and fertilizers. Nuclear power, biomass and hydro-electric power all made inroads into the complete dominance of fossil fuels in the world economy, but taken together, along with all other renewables like wind and solar, they amount to less than a quarter of global energy use.

Industrialization was centered largely in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan throughout the 20th Century. Towards the end of that century however almost every other region on the earth began experiencing industrialization to some extent or other, a development we will cover more in the following sections.

Now that we have a basic understanding of how the modern energy economy came to be, in the following sections we will discuss the results of massively increased energy use and how closely energy use is intertwined with every aspect of our world today. 

The Global Consumer Economy


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Smil, Vaclav. Energy in World History. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994) p. 187.

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