When energy flow broke free …

From an energy perspective, you might split the entire history of mankind in just two phases: one before, and the other after the Industrial Revolution. Before that incisive event, an archaic pattern of energy flow ruled: muscle was the main source of energy to fulfil human needs; this source was decentralised and easily available to everybody, but it was also limited in power output and required considerable maintenance; in these conditions, the energy supply (and consumption) per capita grew only very moderately over millennia.  The Industrial Revolution changed all of that dramatically; in fact it transformed the patterns of energy flow in every single aspect. Let’s see what happened.

Energy after the Industrial Revolution

The history of the steam engine is well known as the story of James Watts, his few predecessors and many successors. Today I’d like to take a more conceptual look at how this technological breakthrough transformed our ancestors’ access to energy. It all started out in a fairly confined setting: the first functioning steam engine was designed and installed to pump water out of a coal mine. This massive mechanical construction served just one single purpose, but it already bore the main characteristics of the evolving new pattern of energy flow.

At first glance, there’s nothing spectacular about the steam engine: coal served as the fuel to generate heat, as that had been the case earlier (in pottery or metallurgy). Only the second glance reveals the breakthrough: now the heat energy was transformed into mechanical energy that was needed to pump water. This transformation of stored energy into mechanical energy was an entirely novel concept without historic precedent. And through this concept, the steam engine as the first man-made engine broke the earlier barriers to mankind’s energy capture. The small unit size of the archaic biological engines (oxen, horse, or man himself) did not impose a limitation anymore. Rather, from now on the scale of energy that could be applied to a purpose only depended upon the design of the steam engine and the available fuel.

That had tremendous influence on the way energy was supplied. From the Industrial Revolution onwards, energy supply could be scaled up to (almost) any desired level, and at the same time energy supply become more easily scaleable: whether you needed just 0.3 horse powers, or you needed 3,000 horse powers, your demand could be met with a purpose-built engine. That engine was then available at the operator’s command, and it consumed energy only in operation (thus providing control over time).

The first steam engines of course had many disadvantages: they were stationary machines, designed for a single purpose. They could neither serve alternative purposes nor could they be moved to alternative locations. However, despite the limitations of the individual machine, the underlying concept of transforming energy proved very versatile. This concept drove the mechanisation of production, and it even started the mechanisation of agriculture and transport.

Over time, we developed that concept further. For example, we learned to use oil as another source of stored energy. The internal combustion engine offered better energy efficiency and allowed for smaller energy supply units. Which then kicked the door wide open for mobility as we know it today. Finally, energy transformation took its ultimate leap with the wide-spread adoption of electricity as the preferred form of energy. Electricity turned out to be the most versatile form of energy, because it can easily be transformed to serve different purposes, such as lighting, heating, household appliances, consumer electronics, communications, and even mobility. At the same time, many forms of stored energy can be transformed into electricity, including of course coal, but oil, gas, and nuclear as well.

Changing patterns of energy flow

In several steps, and over several centuries, the concept of energy transformation actually transformed the patterns of energy flow quite dramatically. Since the mid of the 20th century, these patterns are essentially shaped by transformations: the transformation required to get from the available form of energy (e.g., stored in coal or crude oil) to what was desired or needed (e.g., heat, electricity, petrol, or jet fuel). Together, the different sources and the different applications of energy shape the energy flow patterns as we know them today. The result is a diversity of energy forms to choose from, which are interconnected by transformation processes (different types of power plants, but consider refineries as well) and by distribution networks (transportation by ship, rail, or road, by pipelines or powerlines). And despite the complexity of those processes and networks, we became used to an amazing ease of energy access: there’s always an electric plug or a filling station within reach.

However, this consumer simplicity doesn’t come easy. There are lots of invisible ancillary activities and processes, e.g., to retrieve the raw energy source, transport it, process it, store it, transform it to a different form of energy and deliver that to the customer.  All of those steps in the generation, storage, transportation, and transformation of energy require a technological infrastructure that is beyond the financial means of any individual or group of individuals. And that’s where the modern energy flow pattern strongly differs from the archaic pattern: the modern flow is built upon significant upfront investments in infrastructure, mainly mines and wells, power plants and power grids. This is the domain of large corporations that have come to dominate the energy market about a century ago. Through the aggregation of assets, and especially of financial resources, and with the centralisation of management and risk, they mustered the means necessary to create the technological infrastructure for today’s energy flow. And with the control over the infrastructure came the market power that is close to a monopoly position: today’s energy supply is big business for only a few enterprises.

Drawing a comparison over half a millenium, mankind has made significant strides in its handling of energy. The archaic pattern of energy flow was fairly small and barely scaleable. And it was deeply democratic and decentralised, as everybody was a producer and consumer of the limited energy that biological engines could provide. Today’s modern pattern of energy flow overcame the barriers of the archaic pattern, as it provides energy to (almost) any desired scale. But while the customer side of the energy flow is still decentralised and democratic (in principle everybody has access), the supply side is strongly centralised, because the technological infrastructure for generating, transforming and distributing energy is in the hands of only a few.

The technological breakthrough of the steam engine resulted in a breakthrough in society’s innovation capacity. As the access to energy increased and became simpler, the number of novel problem-solutions that were pulled through from a mere thought to a tangible reality increased as well. The avalanche of innovation we observed after the Industrial Revolution was greatly facilitated by the concept of energy transformation and the emerging modern pattern of energy flow.

A future trend?

Now you might say that the centralisation of energy supply was the price society had to pay for scaling up energy capture. And we might conclude that this modern pattern of energy flow evolved over a few centuries to arrive at this mature steady-state. But is that really likely? Or could there be alternatives?

First, we must simply acknowledge that electricity has become the energy form of choice, due to the incredible versatility and ease of application. But on the other hand, for transporting electricity over longer distances we have to accept significant losses, and at the same time, electricity is still difficult to store. So electricity is far from an ideal form of energy. Ongoing research in superconduction, in hydrogene technology and fuel cells, or in novel battery concepts might result in novel solutions for energy storage and transportation, and those could reshape the flow pattern once again.

Second, we need to keep in mind that since the Industrial Revolution we’ve turned our back on renewable sources of energy and rather depleted the limited stock of coal, gas, and oil.  Today, we understand that our current approach is not sustainable in the long-term. In that sense, the slow re-entry of renewables that began the 1990s should give rise to some optimism. Initially, this was the work of a few idealists who sought to reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy sources, setting up wind turbines and solar collectors to generate (a portion of) their personal energy supply themselves. Over time, several governments issued laws that offered subsidies or tax benefits to support these initiatives, so that renewable energy could become a viable business model.

Of course renewable energy is not yet perfect either, it creates its own challenges, both economic (e.g., market distortions through subsidies) and technological (e.g., stability of the electric grid). Still, the harvesting of renewable energy is an important factor for the energy flow pattern, because renewables again allow for (small scale) local production, for the decentralised generation of energy. And smart electric grids (as pursued in the EU or the U.S.) could distribute energy from where it is easily produced to where it is needed.

These are only some indications. While there’s no crystal ball to tell the future, I’m convinced that energy, easy access to it as well as its sustainable generation, will play a dominant role in shaping our future. As will innovation. Energy and innovation go hand in hand. Of course we’ll need innovation in the area of energy, but let’s remember that energy is the fuel to pull innovation through: from novelty of thought to novelty of deed. More to follow…


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