By Dr. Euan Mearns
What is reported daily as an energy transition bears none of the hallmarks of previous shifts in the energy system that is a fundamental driver of global economies.
In the early 19th century, many homes were heated with wood, and transport was by horse, sailing ship or shank’s pony. Industry was powered by water wheels, and agriculture by horses. Whale oil, candles or gas lamps provided light after sunset. The majority of people lived in grinding poverty, and in 1820 the life expectancy of the global population was about 26 years.
By end of the century and the close of the Victorian era, society was well into an energy transformation. Coal heated many homes. The first electric street lighting had been installed along with coal-fired power generation and a rudimentary power grid in the industrializing world. Coal-powered railways were everywhere. Steam engines fueled with coal powered mighty steel-hulled ships and industrial plants. In 1900, global life expectancy had risen to around 31 years.
This transition paralleled the Industrial Revolution launched by the introduction of coal, which has double the energy density of wood, and the 18th century invention of the steam engine.
Accelerating the transformation was Edwin Drake’s 1859 discovery of a small quantity of “rock oil” in Pennsylvania. And then in 1901, the Spindletop gusher was drilled in Texas, marking the true beginning of the oil age. Refined rock oil (kerosene) could be used in oil lamps. The replacement of whale oil with kerosene for light, effectively saved a leviathan from early extinction just as the move to coal for heating preserved many forests.
The mid 19th century also saw the development of early internal combustion engines, although at that time there was insufficient fuel for a motor industry. The Spindletop gusher and subsequent discoveries changed all that. The world was now awash with oil without any real market. Then in 1908, Henry Ford rolled out his Model T to begin the age of the car and mass transit. The Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1908 led quickly to commercial air travel and eventually to the jet age.
Unparalleled development came with the 20th century and the introduction of nuclear power plants whose uranium fuel contains more than 16,000 times the energy content of coal, oil and natural gas. At the same time, hydroelectric power rapidly expanded and natural gas (the most energy dense of the fossil fuels by mass) became more available for electricity generation and home heating and cooking.
The introduction of gas-fired central heating enhanced the well-being of populations. Whole homes would be heated by hot-water radiators, and no longer would families have to huddle round a dirty coal fire. By 2000, life expectancy in world population had risen to 66 years, 78 years in the now developed countries.
There are lessons to be learned from this short history.
As new energy sources were added over the centuries, the rough sequence has been wood, human slaves, draft animals, water wheels, windmills, coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric power and nuclear power.
These additions have been driven by the advantages of new energy sources over the old in terms of power, energy density, efficiency and cost. Populations embraced the new because it enhanced living standards.
An important thing to grasp is that, at the global scale, this is an additive process happening gradually through the endeavours of many individuals throughout society in many places. Wood and draft animals, and, tragically, human slaves are still widely used.
At no point in human history has a political decision been made by a relatively few elite to replace cheap, efficient forms of energy like fossil fuels with inferior and more expensive technologies like solar and wind. You cannot run public services on an energy source that is consuming taxes instead of paying them.
However, the current so-called transition is being forced upon the masses by politicians and through diktats and vast handouts (of our money). Taxes are being squandered, special interests enriched and citizens saddled with expensive and unreliable energy supplies and diminished living standards.
Virtually everything we have – roads, buildings, cars, TVs, clothes, computers, aircraft, agriculture, education systems, healthcare systems, military capabilities – exist thanks to fossil fuels. Their continued use and nuclear power’s further development promise to improve the lives of billions. Yet, the long, upward climb of humankind — propelled through natural incentives and governed by economics and physical laws — is being horrifyingly short-circuited by the misguided and self-interested.
Dismantling our current energy-supply system may go down as one of the greatest acts of economic, environmental and social vandalism in human history. The motives of those standing behind it must be questioned.
This commentary was first published at Biz Pac Review October 3, 2023.
Euan Mearns provided analytical services to the global oil industry for more than 20 years. He has edited a book on nuclear energy and co-authored another on The Great Tangshan Earthquake and a paper on Swiss net-zero energy policy, A proud member of the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia, he has a B.S. in geology and a Ph.D. in isotope geochemistry, both from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.