W. S. Jevons classic book The Coal Question (1865) explained how coal (and by implication, gas and oil) were uniquely suited for—and indeed, prerequisites for—the machine age. His insights are even more applicable to today’s ultra-reliable, always-on energy requirements than when he first made them nearly 150 years ago. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an Industrial Revolution without reliable energy, and harder to imagine today’s world without plentiful, reliable, affordable energy.

In the mid-1800s, the world was shifting away from scarce, often unreliable biomass, wind, and hydro energy toward more reliable coal. “[T]he economy of power … consists in withdrawing and using our small fraction of force in a happy mode and moment,” said Jevons in his 1865 classic. With fossil fuels, the unreliability of wind power and water flow was overcome. “The first great requisite of motive power is, that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire,” Jevons explained. “The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour, for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear.”

But even if wind were consistent and storable, it was still too little from too much. Jevons explained:

No possible concentration of windmills … would supply the force required in large factories or iron works. An ordinary windmill has the power of about thirty-four men, or at most seven horses. Many ordinary factories would therefore require ten windmills to drive them, and the great Dowlais Ironworks, employing a total engine power of 7,308 horses, would require no less than 1,000 large windmills!

Biomass was no escape: “We cannot revert to timber fuel, for ‘nearly the entire surface of our island would be required to grow timber sufficient for the consumption of the iron manufacture alone.’” Neither was geothermal: “The internal heat of the earth … presents an immense store of force, but, being manifested only in the hot-spring, the volcano, or the warm mine, it is evidently not available.”

Water power had reliability problems compared to coal and locational issues as well. Explained Jevons in 1865:

When an abundant natural fall of water is at hand, nothing can be cheaper or better than water power. But everything depends upon local circumstances. The occasional mountain torrent is simply destructive. Many streams and rivers only contain sufficient water half the year round and costly reservoirs alone could keep up the summer supply. In flat countries no engineering art could procure any considerable supply of natural water power, and in very few places do we find water power free from occasional failure by drought.


The necessity … of carrying the work to the power, not the power to the work, is a disadvantage in water power, and wholly prevents that concentration of works in one neighbourhood which is highly advantageous to the perfection of our mechanical system. Even the cost of conveying materials often overbalances the cheapness of water power.

The California/Western U.S. electricity shortages of 2000/2001 was exacerbated by a bad water (hydroelectric) year, a reminder that nature can giveth or taketh away.

Jevons’s energy-by-energy analysis is as true today as it was when penned in 1865 (just add oil and gas to Jevons’s example.). Coal could be burned continuously and evenly, avoiding the intermittency of wind or sunshine. Coal did not depend on the season or on a weather condition, as did water flow. Coal was storable and transportable. Coal production and combustion needed far less surface area than would a similar amount of renewables. In short, there could not be a return to the chancy, inflexible, dilute energies of the past—which were, ironically, all renewable from a physical viewpoint.

And today, nearly 150 years later, Jevons’s England—and Europe more generally—is experiencing a coal boom, in part to make intermittent, politically correct-and-subsidized windpower whole to be part of the electricity mix.

William Stanley Jevons was the first intellectual to question the ability of renewables to serve as primary energies for industrial society. The deep, thorough insight of the father of energy economics remains relevant today.

Reference: Robert Bradley, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies (Scrivener/Wiley: 2011), pp. 485–88.

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