Peak Oil is You

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Page added on May 31, 2007

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Energy wisdom is knowing that you do not know

The great Victorian economist, Stanley Jevons, published an exhaustive study of the coal industry in 1865. An exemplary exercise in applied economics, comprehensive in its analysis of supply and demand, geology and technology, it proved influential. William Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer, devoted much of his Budget speech to praising Jevons’s achievement and implementing his recommendations.

Jevons had concluded that Britain would be unable to meet its future needs for coal. These requirements – which, at 80m tonnes per year, constituted a larger share of world energy consumption than America’s today – would grow to 500m tonnes in 1911 and could, on unchanged policies, reach 2.5bn tons in 1961.

British coal use did continue to grow for 50 years after Jevons wrote and reached a peak of 300m tonnes in 1913. By 1961 it had fallen to 200m tonnes, twice the level of the 1860s but less than 10 per cent of his estimate.

Jevons dismissed the idea that electricity might meet the needs of industry. But he did conceive that power might be obtained by capturing sunbeams and noted ruefully that England would then be poorly placed to compete effectively on world markets. Jevons recognised that some American inventors believed steam engines could be fuelled by petroleum. He did not, however, consider the possibility that petroleum could be obtained from a source other than coal. What is petroleum, he asked rhetorically, but essence of coal?

Financial Times

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