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This is not the first energy transition

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Playback time: 2 min max

While the use of fossil fuels has been the foundation of civilization for the past 200 years, this has not always been the case, on the contrary[1]. Over 99% of human history has been built on renewable energy (wood and charcoal).

Whatever the exact date of the appearance of the human race - between 2 and 3 million years ago - the use of an energy source on a regular basis dates back only 300 or 400,000 years[2]. From then until about minus 10,000 years ago, wood, straw, dried animal dung and anything else that could burn were used as an energy source for heating, cooking, and lighting. This period lasted for about 12,000 generations[3] , or about 4,400 centuries.

The first energy transition was then the discovery of fire, which radically changed the lives of our ancestors. Thanks to the cooking of food, which became more digestible, the diet was considerably diversified and improved. They ate better, lived longer, and their brains developed.

The second energy transition took place about 10,000 years ago. New sources of energy were used to meet the needs of everyday life: wind to drive boats and turn windmills, water for wheel mills, and to transport goods. This period lasted for about 100 centuries or 450 generations. During this period the world's energy consumption grew slowly and steadily, at the same rate as the world's population (less than a billion people in 1800).

Then, just over two centuries ago, came the third energy transition, and everything changed. The credit, or blame, goes to the inventors of the steam engine and its widespread use from 1770. But it was really from 1900 onwards that world energy consumption began to grow significantly: in 1800, it was about 5000 Terra Watt hours (TWh)[4] for a population of 1.5 billion people. 5000 TWh is the energy consumed in 2020 by a European city of about 28 000 inhabitants!

In 2021, global consumption reached 173,350 TWh, 34 times higher than in 1800.

In 2022, 84% of this energy will be supplied by fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), 6% by dams, 4% by nuclear power, and 5% by new renewable energies, mainly solar and wind power[5].

We are on the edge of the fourth energy transition. If it were enough for each of us to make an effort, like hummingbirds bringing a drop of water to put out the fire, it would be simple. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

See next article: Access to energy, a glaring inequality

[1] For a comprehensive and extremely well-documented history of energy, see Vaclav Smil 2018. Energy and civilization, A history and Vaclav Smil 2017 Energy transitions Global and National Perspectives [2] The discovery of fire probably dates back 1 million years, but its systematic use by homo sapiens to 400-300,000 years ago. [3] To simplify the calculations, an average duration of 25 years per generation was taken, bearing in mind that over the last 300,000 years the duration of a generation has changed. [4] 1 Terra Watt hour = 1,000,000,000,000 Watt hour = 1,000,000,000 KWh [5]

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