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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The one and only century of fossil fuels

In doing research for a paper, I came across a really helpful review paper by Vaclav Smil, published in 2000, that summarizes the trends of mankind’s energy consumption in the 20th century.

The abstract (accurately) promises a broad overview:
Civilization’s advances during the twentieth century are closely bound with an unprecedented rise of energy consumption in general, and of hydrocarbons and electricity in particular. Substantial improvements of all key nineteenth-century energy techniques and introduction of new extraction and transportation means and new prime movers resulted in widespread diffusion of labor-saving and comfort-providing conversions and in substantially declining energy prices.
The paper was published at a time when concerns about depleting natural resources and polluting the environment were long established, but before the recent emphasis on renewable energy sources and reducing carbon emissions.

Smil offers a particularly vivid illustration about how changes in our lifestyle have changed per capita energy consumption
In 1900 even a well-off Great Plains farmer holding the reins of six large horses while plowing his wheat field controlled—with considerable physical- exertion while perched on a steel seat and often enveloped in dust—sustained delivery of no more than 5 kW of animate power. A century later his counterpart driving a large tractor effortlessly controls more than 250 kW while sitting in the air-conditioned and stereo-enlivened comfort of his elevated cabin.

In 1900 an engineer operating a powerful locomotive pulling a transcontinental train at a speed close to 100 km/h commanded about 1 MW of steam power, the maximum rating of main-line machines permitted by manual stoking of coal. In 2000 a pilot of a Boeing 747-400 retracing the same route 11 km above the Earth’s surface merely supervises computerized discharge of up about 120 MW at a cruising speed of 900 km/h.
He notes that the shift to fossil fuels actually only happened late in the 19th century, and supplanted biomass only in the 1890s: “The twentieth century was thus the first era dominated by fossil fuels, and the 16-fold rise of their use since 1900 created the first high-energy global civilization in human history.”

No matter what happens on RE policy, global warming and related issues, it’s clear that the relative (if not absolute) contribution of fossil fuels to the operation of society will be considerably diminished at the end of the 21th century. Since I won’t be around to see it, I can only speculate on what Smil’s successor will write in 2100.

Worst case, we’ll run out of energy (or it will become so expensive) that our standard of living crashes to 19th century levels or below. Best case, we both reduce per capita consumption (through insulation, online meetings, transportation improvements) and increase our supply of renewable electricity and fuels that a larger fraction of mankind enjoys a high standard of living while the total consumption of fossil fuels falls dramatically.

Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy DebateDr. Smil is a prolific author on energy and the environment, with 22 books to his name. I’ve already purchased one book from Barnes & Noble (for my NookColor) and will look into others.

Vaclav Smil (2000) “Energy in the Twentieth Century: Resources, Conversions, Costs, Uses, and Consequences,” Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, Vol. 25 (2000) pp. 21–51. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.energy.25.1.21

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