Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

A History of the Energy We Have Consumed

| June 18, 2018

A Human History
By Richard Rhodes
480 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.

Early in Richard Rhodes’s new book, “Energy: A Human History,” we hear of a prominent citizen using colorful language to lament the state of his polluted city and urge his government to shut down industry or move it elsewhere: “If there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano [on] a foggy day.” Though this could easily apply to modern-day Beijing, the speaker here is John Evelyn, a wealthy horticulturalist and one of the founders of the scientific Royal Society of London — and he’s complaining about London in 1659.

Evelyn’s petition is one of countless stories that elevate “Energy.” In this meticulously researched work, Rhodes brings his fascination with engineers, scientists and inventors along as he presents an often underappreciated history: four centuries through the evolution of energy and how we use it. He focuses on the introduction of each new energy source, and the discovery and gradual refinement of technologies that eventually made them dominant. The result is a book that is as much about innovation and ingenuity as it is about wood, coal, kerosene or oil.

Whether he is explaining what is meant by the octane rating of fuel or the way Volta’s pile — the first battery — worked, Rhodes makes dry and often technical subjects not just digestible, but a pleasure to consume. As has been the case in his other books, he draws on the stories of people familiar to the casual reader — like Henry Ford, James Watt and Benjamin Franklin. But Rhodes’s real emphasis is on highlighting lesser-known individuals, including Benjamin Silliman Jr., a Yale chemist who distilled oil and confirmed its utility, and Arie Haagen-Smit, another chemist, who set aside his work isolating the flavor of pineapples in order to ascertain the true source of the smog in Los Angeles.

In the foreword, Rhodes likens climate change to nuclear war, stating that it “looms over civilization with much the same gloom of doomsday menace as did fear of nuclear annihilation in the long years of the Cold War.” He explains that his motivation for writing this book was to provide a larger context for our contemporary debates about energy and “to cast light on the choices we’re confronting today because of the challenge of global climate change.”

In many ways, Rhodes achieves his purpose. He doesn’t make his advice explicit; in fact, early on, he pre-empts such expectations by stating, “You will not find many prescriptions in this book.” But the dedicated reader can discern important themes emerging over time that have obvious applicability to our current moment.

First, Rhodes’s history makes clear that innovations in energy are rarely the work of one genius and happen at a slow, incremental pace, marked by frequent setbacks as well as serendipity and happenstance. Newcomen’s steam engine, which allowed for abundant coal by making it possible to drain flooded mines, could not have happened without the earlier work of Denis Papin, who invented the pressure cooker, and Thomas Savery, who pioneered a new sort of engine for pumping water. Similarly, Rhodes recounts the cascade of characters contributing to the eventual development of the battery.

Moreover, there is a familiar pattern when one energy source supplants another: As each obstacle is cleared, a new one appears. The distillation of Pennsylvania “rock oil,” for instance, established that itt offered a superior mode of lighting, a discovery that immediately presented the challenge of producing such oil — then collected from places where it bubbled to the surface — in sufficient quantities. Similarly, the invention of the petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine required Charles F. Kettering and Thomas Midgely Jr. to resolve the pressing problem of “engine knock” that resulted from small, damaging explosions in the cylinders.

Rhodes also repeatedly highlights how the adoption of new technologies can be hampered by inadequate infrastructure. Canals are needed to move coal, rails to move steam engines and pipelines to carry natural gas — and Rhodes reveals how each required more ingenuity than commonly appreciated to materialize.

Another strand woven through the book with obvious implications for today is the role of price and of policy in shaping the energy mix that emerged at each stage. The reader senses Rhodes’s regret for petroleum’s dominance. A tax on alcohol in the 1860s made it prohibitively costly for use in industry and illumination, thus paving the way for the emergence of petroleum-derived kerosene. Later, he insists that “it might have been otherwise” when considering the emergence of petroleum as the fuel of choice for the modern-day car. Noting that Ford’s first Model T was a “flex-fuel” car, Rhodes describes how, with more government support, alcohol might have won out over petroleum.

For Rhodes, energy and geopolitics are intimately connected. In his telling, the American Revolution helped damage the whaling industry, and the Napoleonic Wars helped spur advances in the steam engine by increasing the demand for horses and, therefore, the cost of transporting them and their fodder. In a likely surprise to many readers, Rhodes explains how the chance discovery of a natural fertilizer, guano, in Peru, was responsible for the potato blight that led to the deaths of a million Irish and the immigration to the United States of 1.5 million more.

Of all the recurring themes, the one Rhodes stresses most ardently and consistently is the unintended environmental consequences of energy advances. He notes how in the United States in the late 1800s, smoke was considered “the price of progress” and “an irrepressible necessity.” Similarly, several decades later, the introduction of tetraethyl lead into gasoline raised environmental concerns, but was tolerated as a necessary lubricant for the adoption of the internal combustion engine. However, he maintains that as societies mature, their tolerance for environmental damage also diminishes.

Enjoyable as the book is, I wanted more when Rhodes turns to the modern day. The final chapter of “Energy” touches on wind and solar, but its real focus is Rhodes’s comfort zone of nuclear energy, and the author’s lament that it does not play a larger role in meeting global energy needs. Rhodes writes of the urgent need to transition from a fossil-fuel-dominated energy mix to a more sustainable one, but doesn’t discuss the progress — real if still nascent — already made in that direction. This is in part because Rhodes relies primarily on data from 2016 and a 2007 analysis in which the writer says alternative energy sources “never showed up.” While such information would be considered current in the time span considered by the book, in today’s energy world, it is already quite dated. For instance, the costs of solar and wind have come down dramatically in the last two years. The price of utility-scale solar dropped by nearly a third from 2016 to 2017 and, today, in some parts of the United States, wind is now more competitive than coal.

A short mention of America’s recent revolution in using unconventional oil and gas would have also been useful. Such a discussion would be squarely in line with Rhodes’s themes, given the dominant role of innovation in accessing these vast reserves. It would also highlight an important reality in demonstrating how, in every energy transition, old fuels fight back before being gradually replaced.

This is a book as ambitious as its title suggests. Rhodes’s optimism is clearly strained by the enormity of the challenge posed by climate change. Nevertheless, by the end one gets a sense of boosted confidence about the ability of technology and human ingenuity to solve even those problems that at first seem insurmountable.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: O'Sullivan, Meghan.“A History of the Energy We Have Consumed.” The New York Times, June 18, 2018.

The Author

Meghan O'Sullivan