In the early 1700s, the iron industry made the first significant energy shift from wood and charcoal to coal. By 1900, coal had supplanted biomass as the primary industrial resource, accounting for half of all global energy consumption. Coal has three times the energy density of dry wood by weight and is commonly available worldwide. Coal became the main fuel for ships and locomotives, reducing the room needed for fuel storage.
How it all began
The next big energy source to appear was oil. The first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, but oil was used and marketed in modern-day Azerbaijan and other places centuries before that. Oil was introduced to the market as a lighting substitute for whale oil, with gasoline developed as a by-product of kerosene production. Oil, on the other hand, found its true calling in the transportation industry. With the Ford Model-T launch in 1908 and the boom in personal transportation following World War II, the oil era took off. In 1964, oil surpassed coal as the world’s leading energy source.
The discovery of oil altered the course of history. Before World War I, the British and American navies converted from coal to oil, enabling their ships to go farther before refueling than coal-fired German ships. Oil also allowed for greater speed at sea and could be transported to boilers via pipe rather than workforce, both of which were significant advantages. The United States provided nearly two-thirds of the world’s oil during World War II, and its consistent supply was critical to the Allies’ victory. When fuel supplies couldn’t keep up, the German army’s blitzkrieg policy became impossible, and the Japanese navy suffered as a result.
The electricity revolution that took off in the twentieth century was a final significant advance in global energy use. Electricity is a tool for delivering and consuming electricity, not an energy source like coal or oil. At the point of usage, electricity is very effective, versatile, clean, and quiet. Electricity, like gasoline, was first used for illumination. With the invention of the induction motor, electricity could be easily converted to mechanical energy and used to power anything from manufacturing processes to household appliances and automobiles.
The energy system evolved during the twentieth century from one in which fossil energy was used directly to one in which a significant portion of fossil fuels is used to produce electricity. The percentage of fuel used in electricity generation varies. Since oil, an energy-dense liquid, is so well-suited to transportation, only a small portion of it is used to generate electricity; by comparison, approximately 63 percent of coal generated globally generates electricity. Nuclear and hydroelectric generation, for example, are vital parts of the system in many areas because they do not rely on fossil fuels. On the other hand, fossil fuels continue to be the cornerstone of the energy grid, accounting for 64 percent of global supply today.
Fossil Fuel Need
To summarize, energy transformations have not always been about shifting away from existing solar flows and toward fossil fuels. There has also been a steady shift toward fuels that are both more energy-dense and more convenient to use than those they replaced. A higher energy density means that a smaller amount of fuel is needed to complete the task. Oil-based liquid fuels combine energy density with the ability to flow or be moved by pumps, a benefit that has paved the way for new technologies, especially in transportation. And electricity is a versatile energy source that can be used for many purposes.
Many pushing to phase out fossil fuel production now are overlooking the fact that fossil fuels will continue to be needed in some sectors for some time. It is short-sighted to exclude controversial energy sources or innovations, such as nuclear or carbon capture, from the discussion. Renewable energy generation alone will not get us there; this is a challenge that requires all hands on deck. I’m worried that magical thinking and purity tests are gaining ground on the left side of the American political spectrum. This is where political problems with crude oil come up. Simultaneously, the right is guilty of blatant denialism when it comes to the climate crisis. Amid such vehement polarization, it’s easy to lose sight of realistic solutions — and practicality and imagination are the sustainable tools humanity requires to address the climate crisis.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels is made more difficult by their abundance and low cost. Around 15 years ago, pundits were obsessed with “peak oil,” the notion that the planet was running out of oil (the cheap one) and that a reckoning was on the way. The last ten years have disproved the hypothesis. Instead of falling oil output and rising prices, we’ve seen the exact opposite, especially in the United States. Oil production has exploded due to technological advancements; geologists had long known the resources existed but had little idea how to profit from them. There’s no reason to think this development will stop anytime soon. To put it another way, we would not be rescued if we run out of gasoline. It would be difficult for the world to move away from oil and other fossil fuels when they are plentiful and cheap.