A little history

Energy transitions have always accompanied human history. This has involved a continuous process and the time limits between transitions are not always easy to identify. For this reason, the classification by Vaclav Smil, a scholar of energy history who identified four epoch-making energy transitions, is given here.

The first features primitive man. At that time, early humans relied exclusively on their own energy, i.e. the energy derived from converting food into muscle power, to harvest plant-based food or kill animals. So the primary source of energy was biomass, which is the basis of food chains, and the primary driver was man’s muscle power.

The first energy transition took place when humans learned to control fire, an event that perhaps may have occurred as early as 800,000 years ago. This discovery provided them with their first external source of heat, made their food more palatable and their nights safer. Biomass fuels – not only wood, but later also charcoal obtained by pyrolysis of wood and various residues from agricultural activities – continued to be the only source of energy from prehistoric times until the early stages of industrialisation. In France, for example, coal only began to provide more than half of the energy from fuel in 1875; in the United States this happened 10 years later and in Japan in 1900, while in China the switch did not take place until the mid-1960s.

The second energy transition occurred when humans went from being hunters and gatherers to breeders and farmers. This transition has often been improperly referred to as the ‘Neolithic agricultural revolution’, but in reality it was a gradual evolutionary process (from 12,000-8,000 BC to 3,500 BC) lasting several thousand years with a gradual transition from nomadic to sedentary behaviour, through cultivation of crops and domestication of animals. Agriculture and animal husbandry provided mankind with a more reliable and constant source of food energy, and domestic animals became useful ‘machines’ used by man for agricultural work, building construction and transport. Suffice it to say that an ox has a work capacity equal to that of at least 3-4 humans, a good horse equals that of 10 humans. Animals have accompanied man throughout history, only ceasing to be used for work after the onset of modern industrialisation.

The third energy transition was a long and patchy process, which saw the introduction of new types of primary engines, this time mechanical, driven by water and wind. These were the water mills and windmills, which contributed to the prosperity of many European countries until the 18th century.

The fourth energy transition was a more complex process than its predecessors, and its constituent elements were the relatively rapid replacement of biomass fuels by fossil fuels, the introduction of electricity as an energy carrier, i.e. as a more convenient and flexible form of energy, and the invention and diffusion of new machinery, much more powerful than ever before, and driven by fossil fuels. The key event in this fourth transition was the Industrial Revolution, which prompted research and development of powerful engines powered by readily and widely available energy sources in order to increase the productivity of the workforce to meet an ever-increasing demand for goods. The first energy source capable of meeting these needs was coal, followed by oil and then by natural gas at the end of the 19th century.

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