Energy: A Human History

A semilog plot of amount consumed (solid) and the rate of consumption (dashed) for a finite resource modeled using the logistic equation. This plot is part of the solution to Problem 37b.
Energy: A Human History, by Richard Rhodes.
My rendition of a figure from the final chapter of Energy: A Human History showing the historical evolution of the world energy mix.
  • Historical data is noisy and the curves pictured above merely approximate a complicated behavior.
  • The plot begins at about the time of the industrial revolution. The population of humans was probably too small, and our technology too primitive, to apply this model before that time.
  • All future data (say, after 2016, the year Energy was published) is extrapolation or prediction.
  • I labeled the yellow curve on the right “Renewables” but it really represents whatever comes next, be it wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, or even nuclear fusion.
  • Let’s hope that the Renewables curve corresponds to an infinite resource, not a finite one, so it will never reach a peak and then fall. Is that wishful thinking? I don’t know, but the figure encourages us to ask such questions.
  • Nuclear energy shot up much faster than would be expected right after World War II, but then the curve flattened prematurely because of fears about radiation.
  • Natural gas appears to be with us for the foreseeable future, unless we can wean ourselves off of it to address global warming. The use of coal is almost done (regardless of what a certain senator from West Virginia thinks), and the use of oil has reached its peak and is on its way down (now might be a good time to buy an electric car).
  • Climate change is the critical issue looming over the right side of the plot. We must leave many of those fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) in the ground to prevent an environmental disaster.
Richard Rhodes, The Light of New Fires: Energy Transitions Yesterday and Today, presented at the American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, October 22, 2015.

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