Disrupting energy and production – Why

The Industrial Revolution essentially was an energy revolution: we learned to harness energy way beyond the natural sources we had used thus far. Instead of relying on renewables such as muscle (ox, horse, and man), wood, water, or wind, we increasingly utilised fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas to power the dizzying progress we have witnessed since.

To get an idea of how revolutionary that change really was, take a look at human energy capture and how it evolved over time [1]. At the end of the last ice age, around 14,000 BCE, each of our ancestors consumed about 200 Watts to run his daily life. This energy capture contains food, fuel to process food and raw material for making tools: anything necessary to survive and to shape the environment according to his needs. Note that our ancestors captured only about twice the 90 W that each of them needed as physiological energy to keep the human body going. At that time, about 45% of human energy capture per capita was required to sustain human biology, while the other 55% powered human civilisation.

In the year 1700, just before the Industrial Revolution, the total energy capture had reached about 1,600 W. That presents an impressive eightfold increase; but mind that it took humanity 15,700 years to achieve it. By 1800, when the Industrial Revolution slowly gained momentum, energy capture had risen to 1,850 W: a 15% increase in only 100 years. Another 200 years later, in the year 2000, we’ve arrived at over 11,000 W per capita (at least in big cities in Western countries): a whopping sixfold increase over just 200 years. While our physiological energy capture stayed unchanged at 90 W, all the rest is needed to run human culture in the widest possible sense: today, 99.2% of our energy capture drives our civilisation, while only a meek 0.8% are required to sustain our biology.

What’s the problem?

The big question is obvious: how can we keep up with the ever-increasing energy hunger of our civilisation? Within the resource constraints of a finite planet? There are no indications that the per capita energy demand might slow its growth. And even if there were such more optimistic signals, urbanisation and overall population growth would still substantially increase global energy demand. To make this energy-hungry civilisation sustainable, we must seriously address energy demand, supply, transportation, and overall efficiency all at once, beginning with the single-biggest underlying challenge. For lack of a better name, I’ll call it a thick-fingers-problemour entire energy management is wasteful, because our tools are too rough and raw to create and maintain efficient energy flows.

Let’s take the energy management in your body as the reference point for energy efficiency. With its biochemical circuitry, it supplies energy to every cell of your body (feeding the highly decentralised energy demand), using a chemical storage system that is fully recycled. And it all runs on renewable sources. That is extremely efficient (remember, it needs only 90 W) and absolutely superior to the brute-force-approach that we employ to power our civilization. All too often we do not think about energy and take reliable energy supply for granted; I’ll try to make the underlying processes a little more visible.


Just consider the many steps we take to transform, transport and use energy to meet our non-physiological needs. First we dig up the country side to get hold of our raw energy source (coal, oil, or gas). Next we burn that raw source to transform the chemical energy into heat energy. With that heat we then boil water to obtain steam that finally provides mechanical energy to drive our machinery. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, pumps or steam engines were directly driven by steam. Today, we use the steam to drive a turbine that drives an electrical generator. And because electrical energy is transported rather conveniently, it has become the energy form of our choice.

Whenever we want to use electricity, we have to transform it once again: to light our paths, to heat our homes, and to drive our tools and machinery. In all of this energy management, we quietly accept the significant losses of useable energy that occur at every transformation step.

  • Take, for example, your electric drill: from the coal mine to the 8 mm hole in your wall, energy was transformed from chemical to heat to mechanical to electrical and back to mechanical. That’s four transformations, each associated with loss of useable energy. And the last two transformations are only necessary, because transporting mechanical energy over long distances is not viable.
  • Or take your electric heater: from the coal mine to comfy 20 °C in your living room, the transformation chain went from chemical to heat to mechanical to electrical and back to heat. Again four transformations, and in this case the last three were necessary for facilitate energy transport.

And even the transport of electricity incurs loss of useable energy. In part that’s the result of electrical resistance of our power lines. And in part that’s due to an additional transformation step required: between the high voltage in the power grid and the low voltage at your plug at home.

This power grid actually fulfills a titanic, even daunting task: to connect the central supply with the local demand. The demand side consists of millions of consumers, spread all over the place. These include family homes, which are individually small (usually in the area of a few Kilowatts), but notoriously difficult to predict. And they include tens of thousands of industrial consumers, fewer in number and easier to predict, but with considerably higher demand. On the other hand, the supply side comprises a few hundred power plants of various sizes, each generating electricity (usually large-scale, in the order of hundreds of Megawatts) and feeding the grid. These power plants work most efficiently if they deliver a steady supply; but that’s exactly the opposite of the volatile demand.

As electricity travels at (almost) the speed of light, there’s no slack, there are no delays: the grid connects all supply and all demand instantaneously. Hence matching supply with demand requires relentless adaptation. Otherwise spikes on either side will stress the grid’s stability, and –in extreme events– cause power outages. To help avoid such blackouts, supply buffers are spread across the grid. The simplest buffer should be large-scale electricity storage, but that still presents massive technological challenges. Instead, most commonly we use additional power plants in stand-by mode, even if that ties up considerable capacity and investments. Thinking about it as I write, it’s truly amazing how reliable our electricity supply is, and how rarely blackouts actually occur. Again, we shouldn’t take that for granted as demand increase show no signs of slowing.

This is our thick-fingers-problem in energy management: to feed the many small-scale, local, volatile demands, we employ a few large-scale, central, steady supplies. To resolve this obvious dilemma, we rely on our power grid as the critical distribution network and buffer, while paying the price of significant losses of useable energy that occur along the many transformation steps.

The nexus of energy, production, and transportation

When you turn to manufacturing, you’ll find that the production of tangible goods follows a similar pattern of demand and supply. There are millions of consumers, spread out widely, each with a fairly small need (two to three items, maybe ten). Supply is generated at just a few large-scale production sites (churning out tens or hundreds of thousands of items). And our highways and railroads serve as the critical transportation network to distribute the products from the factory to the customers. Several drivers led us down this path:

  • First of all, we are simply good at working with bulk materials, with big chunks of stuff, with large quantities of the same. Unlike mother nature, who builds her products and goods from the atomic levels up (piecing together atoms and molecules), we work in the opposite direction. Just picture Michelangelo’s David: from a big block of material, we chip away what we don’t need. Regardless of the artist’s mastery and the statue’s beauty, that process is obviously wasteful. But in many industries, this still is the foundation of manufacturing even highly complex products.
  • Secondly, industrial manufacturing requires a range of skills and competences. And since the Industrial Revolution, the people with the necessary talent, training, and experience stayed near the factory. This was the preferred modus operandi until the late 20th century, as information and people were not nearly as mobile as they have become today.
  • Last but not least, cheap and reliable transportation is the essential precondition to get the products to the customers. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, transportation was prohibitively expensive, and production necessarily stayed near consumption. But as Richard Baldwin explains in The Great Convergence, the advent of the steam engine (and its use in steam ships and later rail roads) for the first made long-distance transport reliable and affordable: distances shrank as travel times imploded. Since then, production and consumption can occur in different locations, as long as they are tightly connected by an efficient distribution network.

Today, our highways and railroads are the transportation backbone for our mode of production, very much like our power grid underpins electricity distribution. And even the buffer function is implemented in our transport infrastructure. Just think about concepts like ‘lean production’ and ‘just-in-time delivery’: trucks and trains serve as mobile storage capacity.

The distribution patterns of consumption and production define our transportation requirements: we need reliable, efficient, and affordable connections between places of production and places of consumption, for energy and goods alike. At the same time, available transportation technologies define the art-of-the-possible for these distribution networks. At the beginning of the 21st century, we still rely on large-scale, central, steady supply, despite the small-scale, local, volatile characteristics of the demand. We still use transportation networks (the power grid, the highways and railroads) to connect the few producers with the many consumers. How sustainable is this approach, as limited resources face ever-growing demand?

In the upcoming post, I’ll look for an alternative approach that will become feasible as several emerging technologies mature.


[1] For detailed data over long periods of time, I rely on Ian Morris and his Why the West Rules – For Now. In case your time doesn’t allow for the full 700 pages œuvre, I recommend his shorter paper summarising the narrative of human social development since the last ice age, including the full range of data he used.

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