Support Marketplace

Search for ideal fuel is nothing new

Commentator John Steele Gordon

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: Clean coal might have a bright future, but today the hydrocarbon of choice lost some ground. Oil closed down more than five bucks to almost $136 a barrel, off about $9 from its high last week.

OPEC is still doing fine, though. The U.S. Energy Department announced today the oil cartel's profits are going to hit $1.25 trillion this year.

Commentator and economic historian John Steele Gordon says whether it's coal, wind or oil, finding the fuel for our lives is nothing new.


John Steele Gordon: The history of the human consumption of energy has been the searching for and finding of alternative energy sources. Wood was probably the first regular energy source, known and exploited for well over a million years. But when people began to move away from forests, they needed to find a new fuel.

What to do? Well, it turned out that animal dung did the trick. But as civilization grew more complex, a better source of work-doing energy than draft animals was needed. By the third century BC, the Greeks and Romans were using the power of falling water and the Persians invented the windmill about a thousand years later.

In the damp moorlands of Scotland and Ireland, they used peat for fuel. Peat forms in wet areas where vegetable matter only partly decays. Dried out, it burns readily. Coal is nothing more than peat with the addition of millions of years of pressure. When Britain began running out of wood in the 17th century, it exploited its coal resources. Coal was so cheap it helped spark the Industrial Revolution and coal-powered steam engines displaced watermills as a source of factory power.

For lighting, the rich had long used candles while the poor made do with lamps powered by grease or vegetable oils. But when New Englanders industrialized the whaling industry around the turn of the 19th century, whale oil became the first choice for powering lamps. That is until light from coal gas, brighter and cheaper yet, was invented a few years later. But coal gas was practicable only in large cities and whale oil became increasingly expensive as the whales disappeared. Yet another energy crisis was at hand.

The answer was petroleum. Edwin Drake sank the first well in 1859 and a vast new source of cheap energy became available.

Now, rising demand and shrinking cheap sources have put petroleum where whale oil was 150 years ago. What to do? I would suggest relying on humankind's extraordinary capacity to solve technological problems. After all, that approach has worked pretty well for the last million and half years.


Ryssdal: Business historian John Steele Gordon's most recent book is called "An Empire of Wealth."

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...