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?
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.
CoalCoal 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.
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.