For the vast majority of human history, fire remained the primary source of power for daily life, with no serious contenders emerging until relatively recently. Today, we are dependent on a complex network of energy sources to fuel our homes, vehicles, and industries. How did we get here? And what does our past reveal about the possible future of energy consumption?

infographic sources of global energy totals

Traditional biomass

Before the Industrial Revolution, traditional biomass – the burning of solid fuels such as wood, animal dung, and agricultural waste – was the dominant source of energy used around the world. And while the discovery of fire predates recorded history, we know that humans have been using traditional biomass to cook food, keep warm, create light and ward off predators for millions of years. Today, over 1.8 billion people in developing countries still rely on traditional biomass for everyday cooking and heating.

A couple looking cozy in front of fireplace


Coal has been used as a source of energy for thousands of years – it was first mined in China in the 7th century and was later used for domestic heating in Europe. But in the 18th century, everything changed. In 1775, James Watt patented the first economically viable steam engine, leading to the Industrial Revolution and a surge in economic growth throughout Britain, Europe, and the United States. By the mid-19th century, coal had become the primary source of energy for steam trains, factories, railways, and ships. Today coal accounts for around 27% of global energy consumption, and can be found in many countries around the world, including the United States, China, and Australia.

Coal being transported across ocean


The discovery of oil dates back to ancient times, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that it began to be used on a large scale. The invention of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century and the widespread adoption of automobiles in the 20th century fueled the demand for oil. Today, oil is primarily used for transportation, heating, and electricity generation, and accounts for the majority (over 33%) of global energy consumption. It is found in many parts of the world, with the largest reserves in the Middle East.

Oil rig in the ocean picturesque

Natural gas

Natural gas was first discovered in the United States in 1821. However, its use as a significant source of energy didn't occur until the mid-20th century when technological advancements in drilling and transportation allowed for greater accessibility. Today, natural gas accounts for around 24% of global energy consumption, and its use is projected to grow in the coming decades. Its versatility and abundance have made it an important fuel source in many countries, with the United States, Russia, and Iran being the largest producers. In addition, the relative ease of transport, compared to oil or coal, makes it a popular choice for international trade, further solidifying its place in the global energy mix.

Natural gas steam uplifting from terrain


Long before the invention of the first large-scale hydropower plant, the power of moving water was used to perform simple but labour-intensive tasks. Thousands of years ago, ancient civilisations such as the Greeks, the Romans and the Egyptians used hydropower to transport water, saw lumber, and grind wheat into flour. Since then, hydropower has continued to expand and evolve as a significant source of energy in many countries. Today,hydropower accounts for around 6% of global electricity generation with the largest plants in China, Brazil, and the US. Hydropower is also used to aid irrigation and flood control, and new technologies are being developed to make it even more efficient and sustainable.

Picturesque lake used for hydrogen power


Wind energy has been harnessed for centuries by sailors and farmers alike. However, it wasn't until the late 19th century that the first wind turbines were developed. In the years since, wind power has become one of the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy sources. The growth of wind energy can be attributed to its many advantages, including its low environmental impact, cost-effectiveness, and scalability. Today, wind turbines can be found in over 100 countries, with over 800 GW of installed capacity worldwide. As technology continues to improve and costs decrease, it is expected that wind energy will continue to play an increasingly important role in global energy production.

Solar farm in Victoria, Australia

Other renewables

As a result of growing concerns about the environmental impact of conventional energy, the push for renewables has become more urgent. Geothermal energy, tidal energy, and hydrogen are all examples of increasingly viable energy sources. Hydrogen, in particular, could be our ticket to net zero emissions in the coming decades. Despite the current challenges involved in hydrogen production, engineers and scientists are working hard to develop the infrastructure and technologies needed to bring this potential energy solution closer to becoming a reality. 


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