Historical Transitions in Energy Production

Excerpted from a discussion by Giotitsas, Pazaitis and Vasilis Kostakis:

“Energy flows define and determine life itself, so it makes sense that they also influence human societies greatly. For the largest part of the human species’ history, energy surpluses were minimal. According to Ref. [75] approximately 250,000 years ago began what could be described as the first energy era, with two consecutive transitions to follow and the last one still running its course. During that first era, energy transformed from the simple process of metabolizing food procured with foraging, to the utilization of domesticated animals and a scarce use of fire. This shift from foraging to cultivation assisted with energy harnessed from animals could increase productivity in agriculture and transportation up to 15 times to that of a farmer. Innovations like the wheel, metallurgy, the plough and the C. Giotitsas et al. / Technology in Society 42 (2015) 28e38 29 sail increased efficiency. Water contraptions were also utilized to provide energy but it was not until the next transition that they became prominent.

The second transition commences in the Middle Ages and extends to the early modern ages, with the increasing use of wind and water converters but also with more effi- cient man-powered machines [75]. First was the vertical waterwheel, which had been around for a long time but was now widely utilized [66]. Innovations like the cam and crankshaft offered the opportunity for more advanced hydropower applications [58] and watermills spread all over Europe, reaching culmination with large mills like Arkwright’s in the 1770s. Then wind powered devices appeared, first post mills for water pumping and grain milling and after, larger more advanced tower mills [31].

Sail ships became more efficient at utilizing wind, thus enabling a boom of commerce and the transfer of these innovations beyond Europe [75]. Coal was introduced in energy production with Newcomen’s steam engine, which was mainly used to pump water from coal mines, and later made efficient through Watt’s improvements [32]. After Watt’s patent expired, steam engines were developed greatly powering, along with further innovations in traditional energy sources like the water turbine and improved windmills, the industrial revolution [74]. The increasing demand for fossil fuels in energy production was solidified by the replacement of coal with oil, as the internal combustion engine emerged [6].

The third transition … begins with the invention and implementation of systems for the generation, the distribution and the use of electricity. This transition is what fuels, and one might say shapes, the capitalist industrial production. By the beginning of the 1900s, the electric system had reached its final state which is still largely unchanged today. The reciprocal motion that powered the inefficient engines up to this point with the assistance of belts and shafts was no longer necessary.

Electric engines revolutionized not only industrial production but also households since energy could now be transferred [13]. Energy consumption skyrocketed, and power plants became larger and more efficient. Huge hydroelectric and nuclear plants appeared since electricity could be transmitted over long distances. However by 2000, only 10% of all commercial energy supply came from these sources, with the rest 90% provided by fossil fuels. Peak unit capacities have risen 15 million times in the last 10,000 years, yet only people in affluent societies (about 15% of the total population is 2000) have the opportunity to enjoy (and take for granted) this much energy surplus.

As was mentioned in the introduction, what all energy production sources had in common was that it seemed preferable, given the technological capabilities, to be centrally produced, controlled, and distributed and in big plants, in a paradigm formed by cheap fossil fuels [65]. In fact, the reliance on fossil fuels is so great, that electricity generation emits 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 41% of all carbon dioxide [40]. Next we look into the fossil-fuel driven energy production industry that, arguably, shaped (and was shaped, in a dynamic relationship, by) the capitalist mode of production.”

On the current transition to Renewable energy and the distributed system:

“Next renewable energy sources are introduced and the distributed mode of production is presented. Solar and wind power, besides hydro, emerged as the most viable of alternative sources. Solar energy technology had already been utilized up this point by countries like Chile and India, while wind energy was mostly harvested in Scandinavia, Holland and the Soviet Union initially [57]. By the 1990s the interest for all sorts of green, sustainable energy sources was evident all over the world.

Currently almost 80% of the world energy is still provided by fossil fuels while energy demand is increasing in all regions of the world [40]. In the face of climate change, environmental destruction and the rising costs for fossil resources, societies are driven to adapt and achieve sustainability. Further, a great percentage (more than 1.3 billion) of the world population still lacks access to electricity at home [39]. Technologies like carbon capture do alleviate some of the harmful effects on the environment but, in essence, only pose a temporary solution since, while it is not certain when the deposits will be exhausted, fossil fuel extraction is becoming more expensive and depletion is inevitable. Renewable sources along with high energy efficiency seem like a compelling alternative.

For the most part, these technologies have been government-supported and are, considering the potential payoffs, significantly underfunded. Also, in spite of the unfavorable conditions, fossil fuels are still cheaper but it is expected that with further research on renewables this condition will change. According to [67]; renewable energy technologies can be divided into four broad categories based on the availability status.

These are:

1) technologically mature with market penetration in several countries: large and small hydro, woody biomass combustion, geothermal, landfill gas, crystalline silicon photovoltaic (PV) solar water heating, onshore wind, bioethanol from sugars and starch;

2) technologically mature but with small markets in less countries: municipal solid waste-to-energy, anaerobic digestion, biodiesel, co-firing of biomass, concentrating solar dishes and troughs, solarassisted air conditioning, mini and micro-hydro and offshore wind;

3) technologies that are being developed and have been commercialized in a small-scale: thin-film PV, concentrating PV, tidal range and currents, wave power, biomass gasification and pyrolysis, bioethanol from ligno-cellulose and solar thermal towers; and

4) still being researched: organic and inorganic nanotechnology C. Giotitsas et al. / Technology in Society 42 (2015) 28e38 31 solar cell, artificial photosynpaper, biological hydrogen production involving biomass, algae and bacteria, biorefineries, ocean thermal and saline gradients, and ocean currents.

There is, undoubtedly, a lot of research being conducted on these technologies. After their emergence in the 1970s, these alternative energy sources were viewed as capable to herald a new sustainable and democratized energy regime that would be rid of the issues that plague the current one. However, with the passing of the years, and especially after the liberalization of the energy market, we can arguably witness a shift towards research for largescale implementation of these technologies as result of corporate interest for profits. By the 1990s big energy companies and energy trading companies (such as Enron with their speculation scandal) had been greatly “financialized” and today major investment banks are also energy traders leading to short term investments in renewable technology companies for speculative purposes. Thus leaving the future of energy developments on the hands of profit-maximizing financial speculators aiming towards resource extraction. So, instead of creating a new energy regime, renewable energy sources are considered as substitute for conventional ones in the same system , leading to efforts for renewable energy production that are, like their predecessors, detrimental to the environment and may cause severe problems to local communities.”