Mankind & Energy — an intertwined relationship
In the Greek myth the titan Prometheus steals fire from Zeus to give it to humanity, who thus finds in his hands a source of energy much greater than the strength of his arms. Mortals will be able to cook meat, melt metals, and forge tools, weapons and jewels, but they will also soon discover that administering that gift is not easy.
“ Energy is the only universal currency,”
says Vaclav Smil — professor emeritus of Manitoba University (Canada), scholar of development models and historian of technology — in his book Energy and Civilization. A story.
“Both human evolution in prehistory and the course of history can be seen as a search for ways to control deposits and flows of energy in ever more concentrated and versatile forms, to convert them into heat, light and movement.”
Here is therefore the long path and the efforts made by man to obtain and produce that fire that only the myth of Prometheus gives for “given”.
HUNTING FOR ENERGY
Availability, cost, ease of use and efficiency are criteria common to all eras and civilizations when it comes to energy.
In the choice of energy sources, availability has always counted in the first place: the availability lowered the costs.
Once the exploitation of a energy source had started, efforts were made to improve its ease of use and energy efficiency.
The 1973 oil shock changed this way of thinking.
Since the 1970s, for the first time, faced with the problem of the finiteness of fossil fuels (oil in particular), solutions were sought that went beyond mere availability.
There was talk of sustainability, albeit more economic than environmental.
TURN THE WHEEL …
The energy market in ancient times did not offer much variety. From the seventh millennium BC the muscles of animals were added to the human driving force and fire. The antiquity discovered the importance of the rotary motion to help the effort of the muscles and invented the first “simple machines”.
The two most significant, which allowed to understand the mechanical principles and at the same time to apply them, were the potter’s wheel and the transport wheel, spread from Mesopotamia presumably in 6000 BC, although the oldest known remains date back to the fourth millennium. B.C.
Today we know that the Egyptian pyramids were built with machines operated by wage workers. But the most widespread workforce in the ancient world was that of slaves and animals:
“two Roman slaves dedicated all day to grinding with the manual wheel (from the third century BC) could produce less than 7 kg of flour per hour,”
«More efficient was the mola asinalis (the” Pompeian mill “, made of volcanic rock) operated by a donkey. But they were slaves were the source of energyof the mixers in the great bakeries of ancient Rome: the staple food of the empire was produced at the price of terrible physical suffering ».
without the “calcanti” of the Middle Ages, the hamster-men who turned large wooden wheels to move the cranes of the construction sites, we would not have gothic cathedrals.
And in nineteenth-century England, inmates in her Majesty’s galleys walked for hours on parallel rollers to supply mechanical energy to devices of various kinds. In 1823 the director of the Devon prison commented: “I do not consider it a degrading job; on the contrary, it keeps prisoners healthy” .
NATURE MIGHT: HARNESSING THE POWER OF WATER AND WIND
The ancient energy cocktail then included water and wind. The Romans knew the water wheel, an evolution of Egyptian and Greek inventions, but they used it little.
In the second century AD in Barbegal, Provence (France), they built the largest complex of mills of the time, with 16 wheels that powered millstones, yet the water provided in total less than 1% of the empire’s energy . Mills really spread from the High Middle Ages onwards: until then, slaves had been cheaper.
The strength of the wind pushed the Greek and Roman ships, but the bulk of the work was done by the arms of the rowers. Here, too, it took centuries before nautical innovations made sails and hulls efficient enough to allow exploration journeys in the 15th century.
Windmills, common between Persia and Afghanistan in late antiquity, appeared in Europe after the 9th century, thanks also to the Arabs, and powered millstones and water pumps: it was thanks to the windmills that the Dutch drained the polders in the 17th century.
It might be tempting to compare today’s most promising renewable energy sources, such as wind, to these ancient precedents, but the main difference between medieval windmills and wind turbines is that the former produced mechanical energy, the latter produce electrical energy.
But we can find an analogy in the ownership of these sources.
Unlike the land on which the rivers that moved the water mills passed, the wind does not belong to anyone; and in fact the spread of windmills reduced conflicts and social tensions in medieval Europe. Today oil, natural gas and coal are resources extracted from owned land, while for the wind only the ownership of the place where to install the blades is considered and not that of the energy source itself .
THE FIRST ENEREGETIC CRISIS
And the fire of Prometheus?
For millennia we have fed it with peat (semi-decomposed vegetables in moist soil), dried dung and above all wood .
“Cities, more than wood, required charcoal,”
“It was the only pre-industrial fuel that produced little smoke and was therefore preferred for domestic heating.”
“For large cities in regions with a temperate climate, a wood-rich area at least 100 times their size was required to ensure the necessary fuel.” The hunger for wood and charcoal would have led, in the sixteenth century, to the first major energy crisis in Europe.
Population growth and colonization of the New World caused manufacturing activities to increase on this side of the Atlantic, requiring more and more fuel. These substantial needs clashed with supply difficulties, which turned into what some call the “wood crisis” or “deforestation crisis”: a shortage that would have led to increasing inflation.
It is a fact that the high prices of wood and charcoal made the extraction of coal , a co-star of the Industrial Revolution, competitive.
Each phase of industrialization had its sources of energy.
The first boom (1787–1814) coincided with the systematic exploitation of coal mines (already used by the Chinese two thousand years ago) and with the affirmation of the steam engine.
In 1769 the refinement of previous attempts had resulted in the patent of the Scotsman James Watt. To calculate the power of his steam engine to produce energy, Watt used “horsepower” as the unit of measurement.
But there was a catch.
“A living horse of the time developed a power of less than one horsepower on average,”
“Watt inflated the estimates to win over customers and get them to replace the animals that moved the machines with his steam engines.”
The idea worked and Watt’s innovation was a commercial success.
The third expansive cycle (1898–1924) took place in the name of electricity. It was a great step, in supply lighting to both residential and industrial environment but above all it was a breakthrough in the creation of effective machinery: electric motors broke into industries, making production easier, they could be more easily connected with other mechanical parts and their rhythm could be calibrated, doing without the belts that had previously been used to transmit motion — everything became faster.
The Telegraph, telephone, radio, household appliances … The electrical breakthrough was like a new gift from Prometheus.
But with a dark side:
the growing greenhouse gas emissions produced by fossil fuels burned in large quantities.
WINDS OF WAR
Harnessing and controlling energy sources has always been of primary importance for humanity — but we all know that those resources are somehow limited.
As expected, limited-energy competition turned into conflict. And in fact in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and in the First World War (1914–18) the stakes were the coal mines of the Ruhr and the Saar, which fed the steel blast furnaces. Instead, a whole century passed before oil triggered an international crisis, in Suez in 1956, when the British and French tried in vain to stop the Egyptian nationalization of the canal through which Middle Eastern crude passed.
In the pre-industrial world, oil was little more than a curiosity, known for surface fields along the Caspian Sea and for the natural gas exploited in China.
The oil age officially began with the drilling of the first well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1859.
But it was not until the internal combustion engine and automobile, in 1886, to turn it into black gold.
From the Suez crisis to the present day, the list of crude wars is long: Middle East, Caucasus, Central Asia, South America … The Anglo-American oil companies, the superpowers of the Cold War , oligarchies and Asian dictatorships face off against each other and the Middle East tensions.
Even today, about 80% of the world’s primary energy comes from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), pending the energy transition begun in 1954, the year of the first photovoltaic cell capable of converting sunlight into electricity.
THE POWER OF THE ATOM
Nuclear energy deserves a separate discussion .
In the 1970s, in the midst of the oil crisis, nuclear power was expected to move the world at the beginning of the 21st century. Instead, today “only” 10.3% of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear power plants.
This is because many have abandoned the production of this convenient but considered too dangerous energy after the Three Mile Island accident (USA, 1979), the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and the explosion of the reactors of Fukushima in 2011, following a tsunami.
Not to mention the never solved problem of nuclear waste.
THE SOCIAL ASPECT OF POWER & ENERGY
The concept of power can be used to analyze the interdependency between humans and nature with the example of the domestication of fire: relations between humans and the natural environment dramatically changed when humans learned to tame the flames and acquired firepower.
Gaining control over such crucial source of power not only granted our species the survival, but it has unlocked the immense potential of engineering associated with the harness of such powerful energy source, granting humanity a huge leap forward atop the food pyramid to become the dominant species on the planet.
Energy is then intertwined in an intricate manner with everything that happens around us. From the very beginning, nearly three million years ago, up until today, the human race has evolved and progressed by gaining mastery and control over energy.
But with “great power comes great responsibilities” and, as current efforts to change patterns of energy demand target people as discrete and isolated individuals, we are witnessing an awakening in the consciousness that a more intelligent approach is needed to address the issues of system which clearly has evident flaws.
It is undeniable that the current and future path of humanity is deeply related with how we will grow the expertise and skillset to harness and efficiently implement energy sources, all toward a more sustainable utilization of such, fostering progress and evolution of mankind, all why securing the resilience of our species.
Global Energy Review 2020 - Analysis - IEA
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