Book Summary: “Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries” by Kander et al

Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries

Title: Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries
Author: Astrid Kander, Paolo Malanima and Paul Warde
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The authors examine the relationship between energy consumption and economic development in Europe over the last five centuries.

Key Take-aways

  • The average Western European is 18 times better off today than in 1820. Energy consumption and burning fossil fuels played a key role in this prosperity.
  • Energy consumption per capita increased dramatically from 1888 to 1970. It has since leveled off.
  • Before the Industrial Revolution, energy came from organic forms: human power and horsepower.
  • The steam engine is one of the most important innovations in the history of mankind because it freed the organic economy its constraint of low power.

Important Quotes from Book

“This book is an economic history of Europe viewed through the role that energy has played in that history.”

“the “average” inhabitant of planet Earth is today more than eleven times better off than in 1820, and in Western Europe, eighteen times better off.”

“The overall trajectory of energy use within Europe follows a logistic S-shaped curve. It is possible to discern three phases. The first phase, 1500–1800, was marked by little growth in overall energy consumption, and even slightly falling per capita energy consumption in the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. The second phase, 1800–1970, is the Industrial Age, which saw explosive expansion in energy use, except for during the World Wars and interwar period”

“The third period, 1970–2008, is exceptional in that it was marked by stabilization in energy consumption per capita. It seems that after around 1970, economic growth has no longer been accompanied by the same level of increase in energy use… At the end of the twentieth century, we seem to have entered a new phase in the relationship between energy and economic growth.”

“We think that the energy revolution of modern times was not optional, merely one path that was taken among a number that could have brought about similar changes. Major innovations in the field of energy were a necessary condition for the modern world and energy continues to play a large role in the economy.

“The transformation of the pre-industrial energy regime was not a sufficient condition for the industrial revolution or modern economic growth. It was however a necessary condition.”

“We firmly place ourselves among those who think that the availability and relative price of energy was a key determinant of growth patterns and differential economic performance.”

“We argue that both qualitatively and quantitatively coal was a necessary condition for the emergence of modern growth from the pre-industrial past.”

“While the adoption of new energy carriers in the past two centuries has greatly expanded the quantity of energy at our disposal, an equally key development has been new technology (machines) able to concentrate large amounts of work in particular locations in order to carry out specific tasks, or in other words, increase available power. This concentration of power allows humans to accomplish tasks that were barely imaginable just a few lifetimes ago.”

“Of all the quantifiable changes in energy that have occurred over the past two centuries, our ability to concentrate power is perhaps the greatest.”

“We find discontinuities in energy history when a critical macro-innovation comes into existence and transforms economy and society. The implementation, diffusion, and wider impact on society of such macro-innovations are described by the concept of the development block, first coined by E. Dahmén in the 1950s.

A development block is begun by one or more central macro-innovations.”

“Over the last two centuries energy has been plentiful, its price relatively low, and the influence of its consumption on the environment profound. In agrarian economies of the past, in contrast, energy was scarce, expensive, and its productivity low; environmental, and particularly climatic, changes heavily influenced its availability. Almost all of the energy exploited by humans was directly obtained from products of the soil, the main converters of solar radiation.”

“Food for humans and draft animals accounted for approximately 20–25 percent each and firewood for the remaining 50–60 percent. The importance of water and wind was very modest: 1–2 percent of the total. But together they represented a remarkable share of energy transformed into mechanical power”

“A mere drop of 1 degree C for several years could have important effects on the energy balance of the agrarian civilizations.

 To summarize the main consequences:

1. kilocalories from solar radiation diminished by about 10 percent per cm

2. hours of solar light decreased in the temperate zone from a yearly average of more than 2,000 to less than 1,900, causing an approximately three-week decrease in the “growing period for crops, pastures, and forests. In cold northern European regions, cereal cultivation became more and more difficult;

3. microbial activity in the soil declined, and with it the decomposition of organic material and the activation of latent fertility;

4. the marginal frontier of cultivated land was lowered by 150–200 meters; the negative effects on cultivation could be serious especially in mountainous regions;

5. it was harder to feed livestock in late winter and early spring: stored grass and hay could be insufficient until pastures grew again in April or May.

Higher temperatures, on the other hand, meant the formation of free capital and a possibility for humans of exploiting a wider range of natural energy resources.”

“In hunting and gathering economies, people need more than 200 hectares per person to provide 2,000–3,000 Calories, and with slash and burn some 10–20 hectares; but in a dry agriculture (such as the cereal cultivation common to much of Europe) with a three-field rotation, only 0.5–2 hectares are required, and much less than half a hectare in the case of continuous multi-cropping.”

“The inhabitants of countries supported by wet agriculture, about 60 percent or more of the world’s population, were concentrated in fertile narrow valleys in warm regions. The rest—another 20 percent—mostly lived in Europe.”

“In the most productive wet agricultural regions, a family of four or five members could support itself on just one hectare of land, or even less. No fallow land existed there, and pastures were of limited extent since few animals were used in agriculture. In Europe, to regenerate fertility, people had to leave part of the arable land uncultivated (usually a third). In addition, extensive pastures were necessary to make cultivation possible since animal power was essential. Growing seasons were relatively short and “did not allow multiple cropping. It has been calculated that in Europe, on reasonably fertile flat land, a peasant family of five members would require 5–10 hectares to survive (forests, providing firewood, excluded, but pastures and fallow land included). In comparison, in China only 0.50–1 hectare was sufficient to meet the requirements of rice for a family of five people.”

“In any premodern agrarian system the scarce factor was land, while labor was relatively abundant.”

“Humans and their daily work remained the main source of power in Chinese agriculture, in some areas the only source.”

China and Japan had a much lower percentage of arable land compared to Europe (see Table 3.5)

“It has been calculated that, as a result of this development, 70 percent of the available mechanical power in eleventh-century England was provided by working animals (still mostly oxen in this period) and only the remaining 30 percent by human muscle power or by water mills”

Europe had a working animal to every four people.

“with the use of animals in agriculture and transport, the power available to any European was more than twice what could be exerted by his or her body alone.”

“in western Europe around 1800, firewood was by far the chief source of energy, with the only exception being England and Wales, where coal had already long been the dominant source, becoming more important than firewood around 1620 and second only to draft animals.”

“a city of 10,000 inhabitants needed 10,000 hectares. This firewood had to be transported to the city. A city of 10,000 inhabitants needed to employ 30–50 carts daily to transport wood from the nearby forests, unless it was easily accessed by water. Since draft animals have to be fed, the area required to support the city’s fuel need is greater still… This is certainly one of the reasons why, until about 1500, big cities were scarce in northern Europe. They became numerous in this part of the continent where the main source of heating could be peat or coal.”

[In England] “The share of coal in total energy consumed was 12 percent in 1560, 20 percent in 1600, and 50 percent in 1700.”

“The Dutch civilization of the seventeenth century also owes much of its splendor to its fuel resources, above all peat.”

“It is often claimed that the first transformation of heat into orderly movement occurred with the steam engine, but it would perhaps be more correct to say that this came about with gunpowder.”

“At the end of the eighteenth century, the power of a windmill was 2–3 times higher than that of a watermill, varying on average between 5 and 10 hp. In seventeenth-century Holland, a windmill supplied 60 kilowatt-hours per day, equal to that of 100 men.”

“The transport costs of internal overland traffic, which related to the vast majority of all exchanges, were no different in the eighteenth century from what they had been two millennia earlier. The system of energy consumption based on vegetable energy carriers thus remained at the core of the premodern economy, and was little affected by progress in long-distance transactions because self-sufficiency was dominant due to the high cost of transport. Market formation meant first of all reduction in transport costs, and these large reductions became possible only with railways and steamships.”

“The English were in 1800 not only the greatest users of energy from coal but also the greatest users of energy from wind.”

“[In China] Why substitute labor with a machine, when labor is so cheap? The path toward the intensification of labor may turn out to be a “trap,” a “poverty trap.” More workers mean more production, allowing more demographic growth which, in its turn, stimulates the use of still more labor and less capital”

“Once this trend is under way, it may become hard to disentangle oneself from it. The paradoxical conclusion is that the standard of living tends to decline precisely in those agricultures where production per unit of land is the highest.

After 1800, Europe and China traveled on two deeply divergent paths. In China the intensification of labor continued, while its economic performance was declining. The low yield of wheat in Europe led “to increase yield per unit of labour by labour saving and introduction of external means of energy other than man.”

Even in a rice-producing economy, the possibilities for intensification could not be endless. Chinese economy “was finally hit by both the absolute shortage of land” due to a limit to the new lands in which to expand, and the relative scarcity of land due to the lack of any new land-saving technology.”

“Our view is that the start of the energy transition was brought about by the need to replace natural resources that were becoming scarce in the face of rising demand from more consumers and more industries.”

“The exploitation of wind power by sails grew at an astonishing rate. The use of European sails on the seas of Europe and the rest of the world increased throughout in the early modern age”

“By the First World War more than four-fifths of Western Europe’s aggregate energy supply came from coal, which accounted for more than 90 percent of the total increase in energy consumption between 1820 and 1910”

“Coal is also very unevenly distributed across the globe, and aside from Australia and parts of South Africa, is almost entirely found in a few parts of the Northern Hemisphere: in North America, north-west and eastern Europe, Russia, and China.”

“The widespread achievements of European forestry and wood management showed that the continent was not at the limits of its ecology at 1800, but that it was at the limits of an “organic economy.” It proved impossible to raise per capita consumption levels. It is a gross illusion to think that modern growth in Europe could have been supported with the heat content of firewood”

“From an energy point of view, the key aspects of the first industrial revolution were coal, steam, and iron.”

“Yet it is also true that coal, steam, or iron would not each by themselves have generated a revolution. This is partly because they were basically complementary… “In turn, metals and engines provided a major part of the demand for coal itself.”

“The development block was built around two core innovations, the steam engine and new techniques in metallurgy”

“Cheap coal was their essential precondition.”

“Thus the first engines produced only very limited kinds of motion at very great expense. This changed drastically over the next 150 years… “Only after a long and complex history of further invention could the steam engine at last emerge in the nineteenth century as the “general purpose technology” of the industrial age”

“We argue that while the steam engine may with hindsight be considered a “macro-innovation,” a technological and economic game-changer, it required further “meso-innovations” before it could become the core innovation of a revolutionary development block.”

“The great innovation that allowed the application of steam power to manufacturing occurred in the 1770s. This was literally a revolution: the up-and-down motion of a piston was harnessed to produce rotative power. Gearing attached to the engine could be used to turn wheels that were linked to industrial machinery that had been designed primarily with the waterwheels or horses in mind. Now, steam engines could become labor-saving: this is one of the great meso-inventions by which steam power was made into a general-purpose technology.”

“Modern transport technology represented a dramatic market widening, as this innovation cheapened the supply of all three essential elements of the block to a wider market: iron, coal, and engines.”

“The revolution in steam power in industry did not really begin until the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Around 1800, the capacity of stationary engines in Britain was probably no more than 30,000 hp, and concentrations of power were still far greater in mining than in the industrializing cities. The utilized capacity of water power was probably twice as great at this point in time, and from horses much greater still, possibly as much as half a million horsepower. By 1840, stationary steam engines in the United Kingdom supplied around 200,000 hp, nearly twice as much as water. Combined with the power of the rapidly expanding numbers of locomotives, total steam power probably rivaled draft animal power by this point, and easily surpassed water and animal power combined during this decade.”

“Modern,” that is coal-fired sources of power overtook “traditional” sources of power (the sum of wind, water, and draft animals) during the 1840s in Britain, in the 1860s in Germany, and 1890s in Italy and Sweden”

“This greatly expanded the possibilities for market integration, and the potential benefits from that of “Smithian growth”: specialization and a vent for otherwise unused resources, and monopoly positions and rents were eroded, benefiting consumers and undermining inefficient producers. The transport revolution of the nineteenth century compounded trends that were already present to a limited extent in north-west Europe with previous improvements in roads, carriages, and other vehicles, but above all the availability of shipping. But allied with much greater reserves of energy, the nineteenth century was a revolution nonetheless.”

“A similar story can be told about sail. Per capita shipping tonnage in Europe rose tenfold between 1500 and 1780, an increase ahead of very modest rises in income”

“Developing a rail network was an undertaking unlike any other that had been previously attempted. There were huge problems in acquiring access to land, the construction of embankments and bridges, the production of rails, and the coordination of people, trains, and multiple companies.”

“The story we tell is thus at first “British… Indeed, even though Joel Mokyr is probably correct to see most macro-inventions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emerging on the continent of Europe, the ones that really mattered: steam engines, locomotives, and innovatory smelting techniques, were all unambiguously British”

“Much of the development in “followers” occurred where conditions were also relatively favorable for the exploitation of coal, and the vending of the goods produced by new industries: in the north-east coast of the United States near to the great seaboard cities, and in pockets of Western Europe. In all these places the transfer of technology, and perhaps most significantly recruiting personnel to build, operate, and maintain it, was a relatively easy matter. Most of the rest of the world, however, lacked the mineral reserves, the capital for investment, and the commercial networks likely to lure in the necessary expert migrants. Only the market widening that accompanied the nineteenth-century transport revolution, and the development of the steamship and railway, could spread this transformation out from small core regions.”

“growth after 1850 was a tide that raised all boats, but not to the same degree. Overall the experience of the nineteenth century was of “growth without convergence,” with some catch-up from the southern countries toward the end of the era but a marked falling behind of Eastern Europe”

“In the second industrial revolution, a main innovation was another motor—the internal combustion engine—which does the same kind of conversion, from heat to motion, but using liquid or gas fuels… In addition, another path-breaking step in energy conversions was taken during the second industrial revolution: the transformation of mechanical energy to electrical energy.”

“Oil changed the geography of energy supply. Countries that were rich in coal were not always rich in oil, and vice versa. Britain and Germany were the two largest coal-producing countries, but they did not have any viable oil reserves onshore. In 1900, the world production of oil was dominated by Russia and the United States”

“In the third industrial revolution, taking off from the mid-1970s, the development block around information and communication technology (the ICT block) becomes dominant, with the transistor as its macro-innovation.”

“In the period 1893 to 1990, the British real electricity price went down 97 percent and in Sweden it went down 98 percent.”

“the ICT-block is more energy saving than any of the previous development blocks”

“We propose that a country can embark on modern economic growth because the cost of energy declines. This is one of the key messages of this book. ”

“The lowering of energy prices was a conspicuous feature of nineteenth-century growth”

“We therefore argue that it was the third industrial revolution that was behind most of the decline of energy intensity after the 1970s. The third industrial revolution affected energy intensity in three ways: (1) lighter manufacturing industry grew relatively more important, (2) fine tuning of energy and material flows reduced losses, and (3) there was a relative increase in services, primarily software for ICT, and more business-related services such as banking.”

“The European economy was finally released from its energy constraints by first shifting from “areal” to “punctiform” energy sources: coal mined from seams beneath the surface rather than requiring the great expanses of photosynthesizing plants. In the nineteenth century this transition occurred on a massive scale, raising per capita consumption. Coal saves land, since it is stored solar energy, delivered in a very concentrated form.”

“During the industrial revolution one macro-innovation, the steam engine, freed the organic economy from another of its constraints: that of low power. We argue that the steam engine is one of the most important innovations in the history of mankind. For the first time in history it was possible to reliably and in a controlled form convert heat to motion, equipping people with inanimate “energy slaves” (machines). Steam engines enabled a large concentration of energy in time and space; they were more powerful than previous sources of kinetic energy and much easier to control. Steam engines saved labor, and initiated a capital-deepening growth path. One worker could be in command of ever greater amounts of power.”

“Throughout the book we have argued that energy is more important to economic growth than generally believed among economists.”

“Could we not have skipped the coal-iron-steam block and jumped directly to oil and internal combustion engines? This seems unlikely to us. We do not think it is likely that the internal combustion engine would have been invented directly without the steam engine first. The same goes for the possibility of jumping directly to using a secondary energy carrier like electricity. Likewise we could not have jumped directly to the ICT block without first having the electricity block in place. To build a development block, various elements had to be in place; resources, the requisite knowledge and technology to exploit them, the right balance of relative prices, and effective transportation networks.”

“what with hindsight become marvelous and seemingly essential inventions often show a stuttering early progress. Often the potential of prototypes is uncertain, the technology unreliable, repair difficult, and expertise limited. It often requires particular “niche” markets for technological potential to be realized and refinements and learning achieved that allow an innovation that has only very localized advantages to go on to achieve general success.

Equally, as development blocks are put in place, there are many aspects of co-ordination and complementary goods and services that have to be provided at the level of wider networks. The construction of infrastructure, often facilitated or directed by the state, is an obvious example (road, electricity, pipeline networks and so on). The integration of different parts of the production and distribution process, operating with important economies of scale, have historically been highly significant for the establishment of development blocks.”

  1. “Energy and Civilization: A History” by Vaclav Smil
  2. “Energy Transitions” by Vaclav Smil
  3. “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations” by Robert Bryce
  4. “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil…” by Daniel Yergin
  5. “Prime Movers of Globalization: The History of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines” by Vaclav Smil
  6. “Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels” by Ian Morris

If you would like to learn more about the role of energy in creating progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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