Energy and Civilization: A History – Vaclav Smil

Despite many differences in agronomic practices and in cultivated crops, all traditional agricultures shared the same energetic foundation. They were powered by the photosynthetic conversion of solar radiation, producing food for people, feed for animals, recycled wastes for the replenishment of soil fertility, and fuels for smelting the metals needed to make simple farm tools.

The books from Vaclav Smil are a trove of knowledge on energy evolution. This book discusses the evolution of human energy advances over time, from agriculture to weapons.

The book reads more as an academic article, with a plethora of references and sources. One sixth of the book is just references. Very dense in knowledge and explanations, it overwhelms the reader with the sheer depth of analysis.

Smil tries to use largely a single energy unit, joules, to measure everything, from the various techniques to harness animals to work to the different ways to pass water through the watermills. The purpose is to quantify the evolution of human energy efficiency over time.

The book is encyclopedic in its depth and range, truly a history. The book dryness of writing and data is broken by very informative and engaging boxes, explaining various facts and developments.

The only downside is the grammar errors found here and there sometimes.

I was impressed by the precision and correct analysis of energy sources and transformations, missed by many pundits.

Also impressive is the general neutral tone regarding various sources that the author manages to impose.

Overall, an incredible book, THE book on energy history.

PROMO: Energy MBA in Bucharest

The MBA in Energy at the Academy of Economic Studies (ASE) in Bucharest starts the registrations for prospective candidates between 23-25 July 2018.

Organized by the Faculty of Business Administration in Foreign Languages (FABIZ), the Energy Master is the best in Romania and is done in collaboration with representatives of the energy business environment (OMV Petrom, Siemens, CEZ, Electrica, Transgaz etc.).

Join the new challenges and be a part of the Energy Business!

The programme is open to all bachelor degree graduates, but candidates need one year experience in energy. Of course, a good command of English is required, as it is taught in English.

It is a flexible MBA, held during weekends, for 4 semesters. The courses range from “EU Policy in Energy” to “Energy Trading”. The professors and experts’ team is excellent, including one of Romania’s best energy professionals, Corina Popescu.

Please find below the brochure of the programme.


More information also at the following link:

Coal: A Human History – Barbara Freese

Some saw in the mines scientific proof of biblical flood. Some credited coal with protecting people from the bubonic plague; others accused it of promoting baldness, tooth decay, sordid murders, caustic speech and fuzzy thinking.More recently many of us believed we could burn vast amounts of coal without disrupting the natural balance of the planet. No doubt we have still much to learn about coal, but at least we’ve been able to dispel many of the old myths.

The book talks about the history of coal, since Roman times to modern day. Barbara Freese talks about both the good and the bad sides of the mineral. As the author is an environmental lawyer, the book slightly tips on the bad side of coal, however the research is deep, insightful and entertaining.

Coal is appreciated by Ms Freese as the basis of the Industrial revolution and the rock that made the British Empire and the United States. It significantly improved living standards by increasing on a massive scale the efficiency of industrial processes.

On the other side, the bad environmental effects were constant, from the fumes and hard working conditions to current greenhouse gas problems.

The message of the book is that coal was never popular, but always useful. The author finishes the book on a positive note, such as using coal for in plastics and other alternative uses.

Sources of electricity – coal

Coal-fired electricity is the most used source to create electricity and, until 2014, it had the fastest growth wordwide (IEA, Coal Information 2015).

Coal forms through the process of coalification, where peat undergoes several changes as a result of bacterial decay, compaction, heat and time. Peat is the plant remains from a water-saturated environment, such as a bog or a mire. This process happens in a water-saturated environment because only in this particular environment there is a lack of oxygen which favours a specific bacterial decay. The degree of alteration of the peat marks the rank of the coal, broadly divided into low-rank coals, such as lignite and sub-bituminous coals, which have lower calorific value and higher moisture levels, and high-rank coals, bituminous and anthracite coals (also known as hard coal), which have more carbon and higher energy content.

Coal mining methods can be either through underground mines: drift, slope and shaft mining or surface-mines: area, contour, mountain top removal and auger mining. Coal mining equipment makes the largest human-built machines on the planet.

Leaving aside other applications from coal, we will discuss how coal is used in electricity production. After coal is mined, coal is taken to power plants through trains and conveyor belts. Coal is then blown in a combustion chamber of a boiler and burned at around 1,400 degrees Celsius. Surrounding the walls of the boiler are pipes filled with water, which are heated to make superheated high-pressure steam. The steam passes through a turbine, causing it to rotate, that turns a generator, creating electricity. Efficiencies of these power plants can reach 46% (EURACOAL, 2013).

In short, merits of coal are abundance, affordability, reliability of fuel supply, easy to store and transport. Drawbacks are land disturbance during mining for surface mines and the release of harmful pollutants during burning.