Between the Pope calling for an end to fossil fuels that harm “mother earth” and the G7 leaders declaring that their nations will stop using fossil fuels by the end of this century, decarbonization is still making headlines.
But just how feasible is ending use of fossil fuels by 2100? Peter Terzakian, writing in Canada’s Financial Post, mentions a comparison between a hypothetical future transition away from fossil fuels and the transition from wood to coal in earlier times. Since I focus on using historical information to understand contemporary issues in energy, I thought it would be a great idea to explore his comparison in some depth.
Society as a whole transitioned from wood to coal for energy primarily in the 19th century, not in the 18th. Yes, the concept and the technology to burn coal for heat was conceived of and put into practice in 18th century England, but the modern steam engine (patented in 1781 by James Watt) was not put into widespread use for water and rail travel until the mid-1800s. Other important technological developments, such as the high-pressure steam engine, led to smaller and more efficient engines.
Finally, in 1825, the locomotive was ready for commercial use. But it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that steam turbines could power a ship to cross the Atlantic. Coal revolutionized the world, but it took 200 years to realize the full extent of the technology. Necessity, ingenuity, efficiency, and above all, time, were critical to this revolution.
Even though coal was first used by the British in the 1700s and the technological apex of coal, the steam engine was invented 20 years before the turn of that century, it wasn’t until after the steam engine technology had been perfected, tested, and made efficient that the infrastructure caught up to the technology.
The War of 1812 – 30 years after the creation of the steam engine – was fought with old-fashioned navies using wind-powered sails. Navies didn’t invest fortunes to build steam powered ships until the late 1800s because even though the underlying technology existed, it was neither efficient nor cost effective. Imagine if Thomas Jefferson had committed to building a transcontinental railroad simply because the underlying technology for a steam engine and a locomotive were available in 1804.
Jefferson would have been a fool to invest in infrastructure on the potential or promise of an underlying technology. What we learn from the transition to coal power is that you don’t make large-scale investments in infrastructure until the technology is perfected, tested, and efficient enough for market demand.
This is the problem with our society’s current infatuation with solar and wind energy technologies.