1. Understanding Energy
Fuels and Electricity
Consider a benign science fiction scenario: not travel to distant planets in search of life, but the Earth and its inhabitants as targets of remote monitoring by an exceedingly sapient civilization that sends its probes to nearby galaxies. Why do they do this? Just for the satisfaction of systematic understanding, and perhaps also to avoid dangerous surprises should the third planet orbiting around an unremarkable star in a spiral galaxy become a threat, or perhaps in case they should require a second home. Hence this planet keeps periodic tabs on Earth.
Let us imagine that a probe approaches our planet once every 100 years and that it is programmed to make a second pass (a closer inspection) only when it detects a previously unobserved kind of energy conversion-the changing of energy from one form to another-or a new physical manifestation dependent on it. In fundamental physical terms, any process-be it rain, a volcanic eruption, plant growth, animal predation, or the growth of human sapience-can be defined as a sequence of energy conversions, and for a few hundred million years after the Earth's formation the probes would see only the same varied, but ultimately monotonous, displays of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and atmospheric storms.
The first microorganisms emerge nearly 4 billion years ago but passing probes do not register them, as these life forms are rare and remain hidden, associated with alkaline hydrothermal vents at the ocean's floor. The first occasion for a closer look arises as early as 3.5 billion years ago, when a passing probe records the first simple, single-celled photosynthetic microbes in shallow seas: they absorb near-infrared radiation-that which is just beyond the visible spectrum-and do not produce oxygen. Hundreds of millions of years then elapse with no signs of change before cyanobacteria begin to use the energy of the visible incoming solar radiation to convert CO2 and water into new organic compounds and release oxygen.
This is a radical shift that will create Earth's oxygenated atmosphere, yet a long time elapses before new, more complex aquatic organisms are seen 1.2 billion years ago, when the probes document the rise and diffusion of brilliantly colored red algae (due to the photosynthetic pigment phycoerythrin) and of much larger, brown algae. Green algae arrive nearly half a billion years later, and because of the new proliferation of marine plants the probes get better sensors to monitor the sea floor. This pays off, as more than 600 million years ago the probes make another epochal discovery: the existence of the first organisms made of differentiated cells. These flattish, soft, bottom-dwelling creatures (known as Ediacaran fauna after their Australian domicile) are the first simple animals requiring oxygen for their metabolism and, unlike algae that are merely tossed by waves and currents, they are mobile.
And then the probes begin to document what are, comparatively speaking, rapid changes: instead of passing over lifeless continents and waiting hundreds of millions of years before logging another epochal shift, they begin to record the rising, cresting, and subsiding waves of the emergence, diffusion, and extinction of a huge variety of species. This period starts with the Cambrian explosion of small marine bottom-dwellers (541 million years ago, dominated first by trilobites) through the arrival of the first fishes, amphibians, land plants, and four-legged (and hence exceptionally mobile) animals. Periodic extinctions reduce, or sometimes almost eliminate, this variety, and even just 6 million years ago the probes do not find any organism dominating the planet. Not long afterwards, the probes nearly miss the significance of a mechanical shift with enormous energetic implications: many four-legged animals briefly stand or awkwardly walk on two legs, and more than 4 million years ago this form of locomotion becomes the norm for small ape-like creatures that begin spending more time on land than in trees.
Now the intervals between reporting something noteworthy to their home base shrink from hundreds of millions to mere hundreds of thousands of years. Eventually the descendants of these early bipeds (we classify them as hominins, belonging to the genus Homo, along the long line of our ancestors) do something that puts them on an accelerated path to planetary dominance. Several hundred thousand years ago, the probes detect the first extrasomatic use of energy-external to one's body; that is, any energy conversion besides digesting food-when some of these upright walkers master fire and begin to use it deliberately for cooking, comfort, and safety. This controlled combustion converts the chemical energy of plants into thermal energy and light, enabling the hominins to eat previously hard-to-digest foods, warming them through the cold nights, and keeping away dangerous animals.These are the first steps toward deliberately shaping and controlling the environment on an unprecedented scale.
This trend intensifies with the next notable change, the adoption of crop cultivation. About 10 millennia ago, the probes record the first patches of deliberately cultivated plants as a small share of the Earth's total photosynthesis becomes controlled and manipulated by humans who domesticate-select, plant, tend, and harvest-crops for their (delayed) benefit. The first domestication of animals soon follows. Before that happens, human muscles are the only prime movers-that is, converters of chemical (food) energy to the kinetic (mechanical) energy of labor. Domestication of working animals, starting with cattle some 9,000 years ago, supplies the first extrasomatic energy other than that of human muscles-they are used for field work, for lifting water from wells, for pulling or carrying loads, and for providing personal transportation. And much later come the first inanimate prime movers: sails, more than five millennia ago; waterwheels, more than two millennia ago; and windmills, more than a thousand years ago.
Afterwards, the probes don't have much to observe, following the arrival of another period of (relative) slowdown: century after century, there is just repetition, stagnation, or the slow growth and diffusion of these long-established conversions. In the Americas and in Australia (lacking any draft animals and any simple mechanical prime movers), all work before the arrival of Europeans is done by human muscles. In some of the Old World's preindustrial regions, harnessed animals, wind and running or falling water energize significant shares of grain milling, oil pressing, grinding, and forging, and draft animals become indispensable for heavy field work (plowing above all, as harvesting is still done manually), transporting goods, and waging wars.
But at this point, even in societies with domesticated animals and mechanical prime movers, much of the work is still done by people. My estimate, using necessarily approximate past totals of working animals and people and assuming typical daily work rates based on modern measurements of physical exertion, is that-be it at the beginning of the second millennium of the Common Era or 500 years later (in 1500, at the beginning of the early modern era)-more than 90 percent of all useful mechanical energy was provided by animate power, roughly split between people and animals, while all thermal energy came from the combustion of plant fuels (mostly wood and charcoal, but also straw and dried dung).
And then in 1600 the alien probe will spring into action, and spot something unprecedented. Rather than relying solely on wood, an island society is increasingly burning coal, a fuel produced by photosynthesis tens or hundreds of millions of years ago and fossilized by heat and pressure during its long underground storage. The best reconstructions show that coal as a heat source in England surpasses the use of biomass fuels around 1620 (perhaps even earlier); by 1650 the burning of fossil carbon supplies two-thirds of all heat; and the share reaches 75 percent by 1700. England has an exceptionally early start: all the coalfields that make the UK the world's leading 19th-century economy are already producing coal before 1640. And then, at the very beginning of the 18th century, some English mines begin to rely on steam engines, the first inanimate prime movers powered by the combustion of fossil fuel.
These early engines are so inefficient that they can be deployed only in mines where the fuel supply is readily available and does not require any transportation.But for generations the UK remains the most interesting nation to the alien probe because it is an exceptional early adopter. Even by 1800, the combined coal extraction in a few European countries and the United States is a small fraction of British production.
By 1800 a passing probe will record that, across the planet, plant fuels still supply more than 98 percent of all heat and light used by the dominant bipeds, and that human and animal muscles still provide more than 90 percent of all mechanical energy needed in farming, construction, and manufacturing. In the UK, where James Watt introduced an improved steam engine during the 1770s, the Boulton & Watt company begin to build engines whose average power is equal to that of 25 strong horses, but by 1800 they have sold less than 500 of these machines, merely denting the total power provided by harnessed horses and hard-working laborers.
Even by 1850, rising coal extraction in Europe and North America supplies no more than 7 percent of all fuel energy, nearly half of all useful kinetic energy comes from draft animals, about 40 percent from human muscles, and just 15 percent from the three inanimate prime movers: waterwheels, windmills, and the slowly spreading steam engines.The world of 1850 is much more akin to the world of 1700 or even of 1600 than that of the year 2000.
But by 1900 the global share of both fossil and renewable fuels and of prime movers shifts considerably as modern energy sources (coal and some crude oil) provide half of all primary energy, and traditional fuels (wood, charcoal, straw) the other half. Water turbines in hydro stations generate the first primary electricity during the 1880s; later comes geothermal electricity, and after the Second World War nuclear, solar, and wind electricity (the new renewables). But by 2020 more than half of the world's electricity will still be generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, mainly coal and natural gas.
By 1900, inanimate prime movers supply about half of all mechanical energy: coal-fired steam engines make the greatest contribution, followed by better-designed waterwheels and new water turbines (first introduced during the 1830s), windmills and brand-new steam turbines (since the late 1880s), and internal combustion engines (gasoline-fueled, also first introduced in the 1880s).
By 1950, fossil fuels supply nearly three-quarters of primary energy (still dominated by coal), and inanimate prime movers-now with gasoline- and diesel-fueled internal combustion engines in the lead-provide more than 80 percent of all mechanical energy. And by the year 2000 only poor people in low-income countries depend on biomass fuels, with wood and straw providing only about 12 percent of the world's primary energy. Animate prime movers hold only a 5 percent share of mechanical energy, as human exertions and the work of draft animals are almost completely displaced by machines fueled by liquids or by electric motors.
During the past two centuries, the alien probes will have witnessed a rapid global substitution of primary energy sources, accompanied by the expansion and diversification of fossil energy supply, and the no less rapid introduction, adoption, and growth in capacity of new inanimate prime movers-first coal-fired steam engines, then internal combustion engines (piston and turbines). The most recent visit would see a truly global society built and defined by mass-scale, stationary, and mobile conversions of fossil carbon, deployed everywhere but in some of the planet's uninhabited regions.
Modern energy uses
What difference has this mobilization of extrasomatic energies made? Global primary energy supply usually refers to total (gross) production, but it is more revealing to look at energy that is actually available for conversion into useful forms. To do this, we need to subtract pre-consumption losses (during coal sorting and cleaning, crude oil refining, and natural gas processing), non-energy use (mainly as feedstocks for chemical industries, and also as lubricating oils for machines ranging from pumps to aircraft turbines and as paving materials), and losses during electricity transmission. With these adjustments-and rounding heavily to avoid impressions of unwarranted accuracy-my calculations show a 60-fold increase in the use of fossil fuels during the 19th century, a 16-fold gain during the 20th century, and about a 1,500-fold increase over the past 220 years.
This increasing dependence on fossil fuels is the most important factor in explaining the advances of modern civilization-and also our underlying concerns about the vulnerability of their supply and the environmental impacts of their combustion. In reality, the energy gain was substantially higher than the 1,500-fold I just mentioned, because we must take into account the concurrent increase in average conversion efficiencies. In 1800, coal combustion in stoves and boilers to produce heat and hot water was no more than 25-30 percent efficient, and only 2 percent of coal consumed by steam engines was converted into useful work, resulting in an overall conversion efficiency of no higher than 15 percent. A century later, better stoves, boilers, and engines raised the overall efficiency to nearly 20 percent, and by the year 2000 the mean conversion rate was about 50 percent. Consequently, the 20th century saw a nearly 40-fold gain in useful energy; since 1800 the gain was about 3,500-fold.
To get an even clearer picture of the magnitude of these changes, we should express these rates in per capita terms. The global population rose from 1 billion in 1800 to 1.6 billion in 1900 and 6.1 billion in the year 2000, and hence the supply of useful energy rose (all values in gigajoules per capita) from 0.05 in 1800 to 2.7 in 1900 and to about 28 in the year 2000. China's post-2000 rise on the world stage was the main reason for a further increase in the global rate to about 34 GJ/capita by 2020. An average inhabitant of the Earth nowadays has at their disposal nearly 700 times more useful energy than their ancestors had at the beginning of the 19th century.
Moreover, within a lifetime of people born just after the Second World War the rate had more than tripled, from about 10 to 34 GJ/capita between 1950 and 2020. Translating the last rate into more readily imaginable equivalents, it is as if an average Earthling has every year at their personal disposal about 800 kilograms (0.8 tons, or nearly six barrels) of crude oil, or about 1.5 tons of good bituminous coal. And when put in terms of physical labor, it is as if 60 adults would be working non-stop, day and night, for each average person; and for the inhabitants of affluent countries this equivalent of steadily laboring adults would be, depending on the specific country, mostly between 200 and 240. On average, humans now have unprecedented amounts of energy at their disposal.