A History of Energy Flows: From Human Labor to Renewable Power, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

A History of Energy Flows

From Human Labor to Renewable Power, 1st Edition

By Anthony N. Penna


296 pages | 23 B/W Illus.

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Hardback: 9781138588295
pub: 2019-10-07
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This book presents a global and historical perspective of energy flows during the last millennium.

The search for sustainable energy is a key issue dominating today's energy regime. This book details the historical evolution of energy, following the overlapping and slow flowing transitions from one regime to another. In doing so it seeks to provide insight into future energy transitions and the means of utilizing sustainable energy sources to reduce humanity’s fossil fuel footprint. The book begins with an examination of the earliest and most basic forms of energy use, namely that of humans metabolizing food in order to work, with the first transition following the domestication and breeding of horses and other animals. The book also examines energy sources key to development during the industrialization and mechanization, such as wood and coal, as well as more recent sources, such as crude oil and nuclear energy. The book then assesses energy flows that are at the forefront of sustainability, by examining green sources, such as solar, wind power and hydropower. While it is easy to see energy flows in terms of 'revolutions', transitions have taken centuries to evolve, and transitions are never fully global, as, for example, wood remains the primary fuel source for cooking in much of the developing world. This book demonstrates the longevity of energy transitions, but also discusses the possibility for reducing transition times when technological developments provide inexpensive and safe energy sources that can reduce the dependency on fossil fuels.

This book will be of great interest to students and scholars of energy transitions, sustainable energy, and environmental and energy history.


"A History of Energy Flows is a timely "must read" for anyone interested in our concerns about energy and environmental issues, such as global climate change or the outlook for renewable energy. The book does a masterful job of tracing and explaining the long and complex history of energy transitions from the earliest days of human and animal-based energy systems to the modern technological systems of today. It is engaging, accessible and informative to lay readers as well as scientists, engineers and other professionals engaged in energy-related activities. This book brings important historical insights and understanding of the challenges and opportunities for new transitions to a sustainable energy regime." -- Edward S. Rubin, Professor of Engineering & Public Policy and Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, USA, and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and a co-recipient of The Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

"This ambitious survey helps us grasp the major energy transitions of the past and how we can think about, and work for, the transitions of the future. A stimulating read." -- Peter N. Stearns, University Professor and Provost Emeritus, George Mason University, USA

"A History of Energy Flows is a valuable overview of an issue central to the growth and development of society from the caves to the present. Such breadth on this topic on a global scale reinforces the central role of all forms of energy on the forces of history, and the utter dependence of humans on fundamental elements of science and technology. As a good historian, Penna avoids a static or rigid approach to energy transitions; instead he sees the complexities in the constant search for better, cheaper—and sometimes greener—fuels and other sources of power." -- Martin V. Melosi, Cullen Emeritus Professor of History, University of Houston, USA

"Anthony Penna has produced an in-depth and readable survey of the history of energy. Probing deeply into the major historical transitions, he makes clear their complexity and negative as well as positive effects. The book’s emphasis on the importance of energy transitions and the persistence of older forms of energy is especially valuable in understanding the current pace of energy transitions as we move towards a renewable energy regime." -- Joel A. Tarr, Caliguiri University Professor of History & Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

"What is our energy future? Few questions are more pressing in an age defined by fossil-fueled climate change. In this illuminating introduction to the question of 'energy transitions', Anthony Penna shows us that we must look to the past if we want to begin to understand what is to come." --Ian Jared Miller, Professor, Department of History, Harvard University, USA

Table of Contents


Part 1. The Organic Energy Regime

1. Biological Converters of Energy: Food, Fodder and Firewood

2. Early Uses of Wind and Water Power

Part 2. The Mineral Energy Regime

3. The Coal Revolution: The Transition from an Organic to a Mineral Economy

4. Petroleum: "Liquid Gold"

5. A History of Manufactured Gas and Natural Gas

6. Nuclear Power

Part 3. The Renewable Energy Regime

7. Hydropower: Four Case Studies

8. Solar Power: Capturing the Power of the Sun

9. Capturing the Power of Wind

Part 4. Alternative Energy Solutions

10. Fuel Cell and Battery Power: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions


About the Author

Anthony N. Penna is Professor Emeritus of Environmental History at Northeastern University, USA. He is author of numerous titles, including The Human Footprint: A Global Environmental History (2015, 2nd ed), Natural Disasters in a Global Environment (2013) and Nature's Bounty: Historical and Modern Environmental Perspectives (1999).

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
NATURE / Ecology
NATURE / Natural Resources
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Public Policy / Environmental Policy
SCIENCE / Energy
SCIENCE / Global Warming & Climate Change
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Environmental / General
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Power Resources / General
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Power Resources / Alternative & Renewable
TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / Power Resources / Fossil Fuels