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Heat, Power and Light: Revolutions in Energy Services

Author(s):Fouquet, Roger
Reviewer(s):Smil, Vaclav

Published by EH.NET (December 2008)

Roger Fouquet, Heat, Power and Light: Revolutions in Energy Services. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2008. xii + 470 pp. $160 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84542-660-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Vaclav Smil, Faculty of Environment, University of Manitoba.

Societies use many forms of energy (biomass and fossil fuels, electricity generated by burning fuels or by harnessing water, wind, the Earth?s heat and solar radiation or by fissioning uranium) to provide individuals, households, cities and economies with essential energy services whose principal categories include domestic heat, lighting, industrial (overwhelmingly stationary) power, and freight and passenger transport. Provision of all of these services has undergone major changes with both gradual and abrupt shifts to new energy sources (energy transitions from wood and charcoal to coal to hydrocarbons to a higher share of primary energies consumed in a secondary form as electricity) and to new fuel and electricity converters (better stoves, lamps, furnaces and boilers, new engines and turbines and new electrical lights and appliances). Technical innovation, the emergence of mass energy markets and a steadily rising demand for energy services were the driving factors behind these changes and their beneficiaries through numerous reinforcing feedbacks.

In the long run, prices of energy services have shown some very impressive declines (in some cases by orders of magnitude), their per capita consumption has increased to such an extent that some rates could be seen as going beyond what might be considered as rational saturation levels ? and these developments have taken place even as many previously highly damaging externalities that accompanied the supply of essential energy services have been either completely eliminated or reduced to much more acceptable levels thanks to the their internalization (through effective controls) or to the deployment of better techniques.

This, in two short paragraphs, is the story (and the history) of energy uses whose basic qualitative outlines have been recognized for decades by generations of engineers, historians and economists interested in long-term energy developments. Fouquet?s welcome contribution to this genre is to take this basic narrative and to quantify the use of basic energy services ? as best as possible and as far back as possible ? based on what is certainly one of the best available national data stores derived from a wide variety of English historical and modern statistics and case studies. The advantage of the choice is obvious, as few countries can provide such data series as the cost of candles or fuel wood going back to the late Middle Ages and as the country?s post-1700 industrial development has been accompanied by an uncommon interests in quantifying its progress (be it the price of coal and coal gas or the performance of engines or lights).

In the trio of introductory chapters Fouquet looks first briefly at the past, present and future of energy services, and at energy demand, technical change and economic development and then he describes the historical data and methods he has chosen to use. The book?s most substantial part deals with the development of individual energy services with separate chapters for heating, stationary (industrial) power, transport and lighting: in most cases the time span under consideration is 1300-2000. The third part analyzes long-term trends in the production, consumption and costs of these services (including their externalities) across the same time span, and some of the policies that have influenced those trends. The closing trio of very short chapters speculates about future trends and policies that may yield ?sustainable? futures (I am allergic to that always ill-defined, and hence largely meaningless, term: hence my quote marks).

Fouquet has dug widely and deeply into English sources, publications, statistical reconstructions and the best available data sets. Having such long-run quantitative perspectives under one cover is both very useful and quite revealing. Having it analyzed in consistent terms (as changes in per capita use, prices, conversion efficiency and energy intensity) makes it, of course, even more valuable. There is only one facet of the work that, in my view, subtracts from its great value. Fouquet is an economist and economists are ever ready to resort to models where real numbers are lacking. And so besides many inevitable data interpolations (some spanning real time chasms) and questionable assumption (did London market represent the entire country?) he has also modeled the missing realities in order to produce simulated estimates for energy uses, efficiencies and prices for every tenth year between 1300 and 1850 and for every year between 1850 and 2000.

Not only that, he has chosen to append the results of his modeling exercises not in appropriately (that would be grossly) rounded numbers but in risible details, and, to compound the difficulties of long-term comparisons, to express all figures in constant ?(2000) and to compare energies in terms of oil equivalent. And so we can find that in 1310 lighting by candles cost ?3,652 per tonne of oil equivalent, that the average efficiency of heating in 1650 was 11.9%, or that land freight in 1760 was ? 339/tonne-kilometer. Of course, Fouquet knows that such ?estimates are certainly not accurate? but he maintains that ?they provide the correct order of magnitude? (p. 314). This begs the question why the book contains dozens of graphs based on plotting these inaccurate estimates and showing their misleadingly precise decadal and annual ups and downs across (as the case may be) seven, five or three centuries.

If the order of magnitude is all we can rightly get from nearly all pre-1750 data, then why not show their most likely centennial values with some error bars rather than offering numbers down to a pound and a decimal point? Does the author admonish us in his preface to ?consume the graphs in moderation? because he is all too aware of their inherent weakness? There are also many questionable point estimates. Can we really seriously propose (p. 393) that the heating efficiency of a traditional fireplace was 9.5% in 1500? Was the economic cost of Britain?s air pollution (p. 304) really equal to nearly 20% of the country?s GDP in 1900? On the other hand (p. 407), ?evidence of the declining cost of travelling by plane was not found.? Checking the price of BOAC?s London-New York economy ticket in 1950 and comparing it with the price charged by Virgin Atlantic in 2000 would have done the trick.

Fouquet has produced an outstanding contribution to our long-run understanding of energy uses. If he could have resisted modeling the distant past and let the unruly realities speak for themselves, the result would have been even better.

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. His latest books are Oil: A Beginner?s Guide and Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years (both in 2008).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval