Peat and peat-bogs
The age of coal starts towards the mid 1600s, stimulated by the need for finding an alternative energy source to wood. Up to then, wood had been the most commonly used energy source, and also a good building material; however, the excessive exploitation of woods led many European countries to progressively destroy their forests, and wood started to be rare.
Pit coal emerged as the best available alternative. It was present underground in many countries of central Europe and was a very suitable energy source for the first steam engines.
In a few decades the demand for coal increased remarkably to provide energy to the increasingly flourishing European industry. In particular, England, thanks to its large coal fields, took an economic advantage and consolidated its technological and industrial supremacy.
Starting from 1750 the Industrial Revolution began in England, leading to radical changes in the economic and social systems. Then it spread to the other European countries and reached the U.S. too.
The enthusiasm for the “coal rush” led to an increasingly intensive exploitation of coal fields especially in England, Russia, Germany and France. During that period the world coal output passed from a little more than 10 million tonnes in 1700 to approximately 70 million tonnes in 1850 and 800 million tonnes in 1900. Up to 1960 coal was the most widely used fossil fuel, then is suffered from the competition of oil, the extraction and transportation of which were easier.
The role of coal is still important as an alternative fuel to oil. The size of its ascertained reserves (i.e. the reserves known at present which can be exploited with an economic advantage) world-wide is remarkable: approximately 1,000 billion tonnes of coal as compared to 140 billion tonnes of oil and 130 billion tonnes of oil equivalent of natural gas.
The current consumption rate (in the absence of new discoveries or the opening of new fields currently not exploited because they are too expensive) the ascertained reserves of coal will last for 200 years, i.e. a longer time than that forecast for other hydrocarbons, but still a finite period.