Preindustrial Energy Consumption

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Throughout most of human history, energy consumption has been relatively low. Human and animal labor provided most of the energy used for agriculture, transportation, and societal growth. Wind, water, and biomass sources were the primary means by which domestic and trade needs were met. This section examines the use of these resources by humans until the 1850s.

Waterwheels were the first devices designed to harness the kinetic energy of flowing water. The first uses of water mills can be traced back to first century BCE, where Romans used them to power grain mills (Smil 1994, 225). Water mills became more common in Europe after 1000 CE. For example, in 1086, it was reported that there were over 5,600 water mills operating in southern and eastern England alone (103). Initially, water mills were used for grain milling, but design innovation and mechanization allowed waterwheels to replace other manual tasks, from paper-making to ore crushing. In the nineteenth century, the waterwheel design was replaced by water turbines, which were more efficient and hence increased power output.

Wind was also an important primary resource. The harnessing of wind energy occurred in the twelfth century in regions of Europe and Asia where water power was not feasible (e.g., in low-lying areas where water heads were nonexistent or in desert areas where water was scarce). The Dutch made vast improvements to windmill design in the 1600s. European use of windmills was by far the greatest in the Netherlands, where in addition to milling grain and pumping water, the Dutch utilized windmills to drain low-lying areas. In the 1800s, the more than 30,000 windmills operating around the North Sea region provided an important source of energy for Europe (Smil 1994, 112).

Biomass energy sources have been extremely valuable to humans throughout history. Wood, dried dung, crop residues, animal oils, and waxes were important for domestic heating, lighting, and food preparation. Additionally, charcoal (the carbon substance produced when wood undergoes pyrolysis) was used for smelting, a process used to purify iron ore (Fe2O3). During smelting, high temperatures separate the iron from the oxygen, combining it with carbon to strengthen the alloy. Metallurgy proved to be the most energy-intensive process of the time period. Metal ore needed to be mined, crushed, and then smelted. This final stage required vast amounts of charcoal, and deforestation became a major problem in societies with intense iron trades. By the early 1700s, it is estimated that English iron production required approximately 1,100 square kilometers (approximately 425 square miles) of forest per year to sustain production (Smil 1994, 151). In the 1800s, U.S. iron production required approximately 2,600 square kilometers (approximately 1,004 square miles) of forest (156).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, deforestation that occurred in England from iron production caused an energy crisis as shortages of fuelwood, lumber, and charcoal increased the prices of these resources. Coal, which was first commercially extracted in Belgium in 1113 and shipped to England as early as 1228, became increasingly used in response to the fuel shortages (Smil 1994, 159). Between 1540 and 1640, most of the coalfields in England were being actively mined. Coke (a carbonized substance produced from the pyrolysis of coal) replaced charcoal as the primary fuel used in metallurgy in the 1700s. The first major energy transition from renewable sources to fossil energies occurred in England during this time.

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