Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Peak peat!

As we here about various discussions of peak oil, it is helpful to understand that it is not the first time that we have run through an source of fuel and had to go looking for others.  In some cases a substiture was found, but not always at the place and time where it was needed.

Nineteenth century, whale oil depletion (pdf)  has become a popular subject to look at because markets were modern enough that you can do a reasonable job of collecting data.  But there is another major fuel source that was used right at the start of the rise of the commercial economy that was depleted:  peat.

The Dutch were the first global modern commerical economy.  Although the industrial revolution occured latter in England, the Dutch were also industrialists of sorts, and manufactured products to supply these new commerical markets.  It was the opening of these commercial markets that increased both the demand for consumer goods, and the wages of common workers, that drove the early portions of the industrial revolution.

Of course the Dutch are most closely associated with windmills.  There most famous use was to pump out water fromt their low lying coastal lands, so that they could continue to push out and claim additional lands from the sea.

But windmills supply kinetic energy (motion), they don't supply heat.  And as the author of the following post notes, 89% of energy usage today is in the form of heat. 

Low-tech Magazine, 29 September 2011

The industrial windmill was a marvel of pre-industrial technology, but it explains only partly why Holland became the most important economic power in the world during the 17th century. While sustainable providers of power, windmills could only deliver kinetic energy. To give just one example: you can use wind power to polish glass, but you can't make glass using a windmill. For that, you need thermal energy. And in pre-industrial times, as the history books tell us, the only way to reach high temperatures was to burn wood.

One problem, though: virtually all forests in the region had long vanished by the 1600s. Yet, during the Golden Age of the Netherlands, the Dutch not only made glass, they also produced bricks, tiles, ceramics and clay pipes, they refined salt and sugar, bleached linen, boiled soap, brewed beer, distilled spirits and baked bread. All these processes were based on a massive input of thermal energy.

For the needs of the time, peat was a better fuel than coal: it may have been a little bulkier, but it burned cleaner.  The British originally did not allow the burning of coal within their cities because it made such a smokey mess.  But as time went on, the British ran out of wood for heating and turned to coal.

As we noted earlier, this use of coal as a heating source started the chain of events that first modernized agriculture, and then created the supply of coal to fuel the second state of the industrial revolution.

Although the Dutch certainly had other issues that they had to contend with, the loss of their indigenous source of fuel greatly hobbled their ability to move forward into the industrial age that was to follow.  Britain, and then the Germany and the United States fueled the powerhouse economies with coal.  The Dutch had run out of peat, and had to buy their coal from someone else.

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