A Free-Market Energy Blog

W. S. Jevons and UK Coal Revisited (worth re-reading weekend)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 20, 2009

In an earlier post at MasterResource, W. S. Jevons (1865) on Coal (Memo to Obama, Part III), the hall-of-fame-economist explained how coal was a godsend to Britain, powering the industrial revolution in a way that renewable energies could not.

I am reminded of Jevons with the headline from the June 17th Guardian, “Carbon capture plans threaten shutdown of all UK coal-fired power stations.” It read in part:

All of Britain’s coal-fired power stations, including Drax, the country’s largest emitter of carbon, could be forced to close down under radical plans unveiled by government today. Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, is proposing to extend his plans to force companies to fit carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) onto new coal plants – as revealed by the Guardian – to cover a dozen existing coal plants. The consultation published by his Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) conceded that if this happened “we could expect them to close”.

Timeless Wisdom from 1865

Here is the MasterResource post (January 31) on Jevons and coal. What would he think today of the politics and policies of climate change in his home country?

Each renewable energy, Jevons explained, was either too scarce or too unreliable for the new industrial era. The energy savior was coal, a concentrated, plentiful, storable, and transportable source of energy that was England’s bounty for the world.

There was no going back to renewables. Coal–and that included oil and gas manufactured from coal–was the new master of the master resource of energy in the 18th and 19th centuries. As Jevons stated in the introduction (p. viii) of The Coal Question (1865):

Coal, in truth, stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.

Jevons drew attention to one remarkable new use of the new fuel (ibid., p. 100):

Perhaps the most wonderful mode of employing coal is in the ice-machine, two kinds of which, of French and English invention respectively, were at work in the Exhibition of 1862. By such machines, we may make fire, in the hottest climate, produce the cold of the Polar Regions! With fuel and fire, then, almost anything is easy.

Another writer of the day appreciated what coal meant for all:

Coal is everything to us. Without coal, our factories will become idle, our foundries and workshops be still as the grave; the locomotive will rust in the shed, and the rail be buried in the weeds. Our streets will be dark, our houses uninhabitable. Our rivers will forget the paddlewheel, and we shall again be separated by days from France, by months for the United States. The post will lengthen its periods and protract its dates. A thousand special arts and manufacturers, one by one, then in a crowd, will fly the empty soil, as boon companies are said to disappear when the cask is dry. We shall miss our grand dependence, as a man misses his companion, his fortune, or a limb, every hour and at every turn reminded of the irreparable loss. Wise England will then be the silly virgin without the [coal] oil in her lamp.

   – Anonymous, The Times, April 19, 1866, p. 10; reprinted in Sandra Peart, ed., W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses, 4 vol. (New York: Routledge, 2003), vol. 4, p. 196.

Today, scholars recognize the wisdom of Jevons’s appreciation for the energy upgrade from (dilute) renewables to (rich) fossil fuel. Vaclav Smil has written (Energies [Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999], p. 134):

By providing energy flows of high power density, fossil fuels and electricity made it possible to embark on a large-scale industrialization creating a predominantly urban civilization with unprecedented levels of economic growth reflected in better health, greater social opportunities, higher disposable incomes, expanded transportation and an overwhelming flow of information.

Today, some radical environmentalists want to ban coal in favor of renewable energies.  But I must wonder: what would have powered the Industrial Revolution without coal, and what will our future be without the most abundant fossil fuel in a primary role?

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