“A windmill is known to have existed in Alexandria, Egypt as early as the first century AD.”
By Dr. John J. Hidore
February 12, 2016—For most of human history the energy available to our species was the strength of the individual. The first supplemental energy source humans began to use was fire. Fire was being used in Yunan province of southeast China more than a million years ago. Fire provided energy for light, for cooking, and other uses. It most likely provided these individuals an advantage in growing their population.
Renewable Resources of Early Man
The use of fire spread through the global population. It may also have come into use independently in different areas. As the use of fire spread as a resource, a variety of fuels were used depending on what was available in the region. All were renewable energy sources. In the forested regions dried, downed limbs and twigs served the purpose. In the grasslands dried grasses and stems of shrubs provided the fuel. Bones from dead animals were also used as fuel. In the Great Plains of the United States, the early farmers burned wheat straw and corn stalks for heat in the winter. Often an empty metal barrel served as the stove.
An additional organic fuel source in many areas was dried dung from herbivores, such as elephants and buffalo, were used. The use of these renewable fuels continues today in parts of Africa, Asia and South America. Even in the modern world of the internet and drones, dried dung is still being sought for fuel. In India cow dung is mixed with grasses and dried into patties. Piles of drying dung are common in rural villages, as are walls plastered with drying cow patties. In fact in cities in India, residents can purchase cow dung patties from internet retailers such as Amazon and eBay. While not in great demand, they are still used in some religious ceremonies and occasionally for nostalgic reasons. The use of natural organic fuels continues today in many cultures, such as the Amazon rain forest where tribes use the same fuels as the earliest human’s use of fire.
Windmills and Waterwheels in the 10th Century
Eventually the use of animal power was added as an energy source for transportation and pumping water for irrigation among other things. This gave the people a physical source of mechanic energy. Draft animals are believed to have been used as early as 7000 years ago.
The use of wind and flowing water came into use in different areas around the world at different times. Water wheels were used to lift water for irrigation or to drain mines in the first or second century BC. A windmill is known to have existed in Alexandria, Egypt as early as the first century AD. They were certainly in use for pumping water and grinding grain in the 10th Century. Paintings of landscapes in the Netherlands show windmills in use. Both windmills and water wheels were in widespread use by 1500 AD. The additional power source increased the amount of food that could be produced and so the global population grew rapidly.
Industrial Revolution: Use of Fossil Fuels–Coal
The industrial revolution began in what is now Britain during the period from 1783 to 1812. By this time the global population had passed the 500 million mark. The pressure of the growing population had severely reduced the supply of wood for fuel and as a building material. This brought about a transition to the use of fossil fuels. People began burning chunks of coal that were found scattered on the surface. Mining coal began soon after. When the steam engine was invented the demand for coal grew even faster. Coal supplied a seemingly unlimited source of non-renewable source of energy. The consumption of coal has increased rapidly after the onset of the industrial revolution. It is the most used fuel for generating electricity. The consumption of coal increased by more than 50% in just a few years from 2000 to 2011. The use of oil and natural gas has also expanded rapidly since their introduction as usable fuels.
Growth of Renewables in 21st Century
In the 21st Century there has been a resurgence in the use of renewable energy. The traditional sources of renewable energy, such as vegetation, wind, and water continue. To these are added solar energy. There are a number of reasons for the growth of renewables, such as the hazards of burning fossil fuels. Also, new technologies for obtaining energy from renewable sources are rapidly reducing in cost. Only the growth of hydroelectric power generation, which was highly developed in the 20th Century, has slowed. This is largely due to the fact that large dams tend to completely alter the river morphology both above and below the dams.
One bit of trivia related to the increasing use of renewables is that the stadium in which Super Bowl 50 was played is powered by solar energy. Significant also is the fact that automobile companies expect to have a practical and affordable electric car on the market within five years. The future? Experimental cars and buses are being developed using solar energy. Are we coming full circle back to pre-industrial life out of necessity–trying to save the only planet we have?