So in the world I've been creating, I decided that the inhabited world (which is actually pretty small because of reasons) uses steam power as its main source of energy. This inhabited area is about the size of Europe or the US, and is quite populated, but it varies in population density between a Chicago-like density and a suburban density. Additionally, they've been using this power for at least a century or two.

Regardless, this entire civilization uses advanced steam technology (think 1980s US technology but only steam power) to power everything they do. What would the environmental impact of this be? I realize that it would take fossil fuels and could pollute the environment, but to what extent would this take place?

My main questions: How would it affect the weather? How would it affect wildlife? How would it affect forests and lush areas in general? Could anything survive the repercussions of heavy steam power used over that long of a period of time?

Edit: To clarify for people who are wondering, everything is powered by steam, not necessarily in a "telephones use steam for texting" sense, but for generators.

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    $\begingroup$ Steam isn't a SOURCE of energy, it's just one of many ways to turn energy into work. Steam takes heat, and heat comes from... where, in your world? The impact on your world is dependent entirely on where you're getting the heat to make the steam. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Sep 19 '19 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ These people use steam for everything? How do you create steam powered lighting, thelephones, radio & TV, efficient microprocessors...? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 19 '19 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ Does '1980s US technology' include nuclear-steam (1950s) or solar-steam (1960s)? $\endgroup$ – user535733 Sep 19 '19 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf The same way we do. Everything I use that's electric runs on steam -- it's just steam made by burning coal far away from my house, and transmitted electrically. No internal combustion need not imply no electricity. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Sep 19 '19 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Zeiss Ikon: Two different questions. You're suggesting that steam be used to convert heat to electricity, which is what we often do in our own largely steam-powered world. Though you overlook hydroelectric, wind, and PV solar. If this alternate world generates electricity with steam, why would it not also use those other sources? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 20 '19 at 16:05

Steam is generated by burning some kind of fuel -- wood, coal, or petroleum. Right?

If this is the case, the results will be little different from the world we have now, except that the smaller population and reduced coverage will limit the effects.

That said, wood and coal are much more prone to produce solids (soot and ash) in their end products than oil, and they generate acidic by products, so if your steam is created from solid fuel, there will be more acid rain and ash disposal problems (look at the coal ash disasters in recent years in the eastern United States -- North Carolina/Virginia border), proportionally, than in a world where most energy (much of which is gotten via fixed steam systems anyway) is derived from oil or gas.

There was a well known occurrence of an English moth species that was selected for a dark color phase during the coal locomotive era, and then returned to its original "mostly light" phase proportion when coal burning was largely eliminated in England. You might expect to see multiple examples of this kind of minor effect, especially in denser population regions.

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    $\begingroup$ Steam could also come from nuclear reactors, geothermal sources, or even solar. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 19 '19 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ Geothermal is unlikely to be a large part of the mix, outside of some small locations with unusual geology. In most regions away from hot spots the heat flux is some few kilowatts per square km. So unless you live in a place with a volcano or a natural hot springs or some such, it's not really practical. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Sep 19 '19 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Nuclear is almost certain to be fixed location large installations; as is geothermal (if even available locally); solar thermal tends to require very large collectors as well. For transportation, it's pretty much steam-generated electricity (nice for subways and local trains, but not much good for cars without 21st century battery technology) or actual movable steam engines (Stanley Steamer or Doble plus 60-80 years). $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Sep 19 '19 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @puppetsock: I might accept the impracticality of geothermal if I didn't live just down the road from a ~75 MW geothermal plant :-) Of course you use what's available locally. You don't build many hydrolectric plants if you live in the plains, nor do you use coal if it has to be imported, and geothermal is handy. (Like Iceland, for instance.) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 20 '19 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Please do look up the meaning of "weak man" fallacy. thenonsequitur.com/?p=552 $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Sep 20 '19 at 18:08

To gauge the impact of a steam-powered World on the environment just look around you: because...

We live in a steam-powered world

Three quarters of the electric energy produced in our real world is produced by steam turbines. Boil water (using coal, gas, oild nuclear, whatever), make steam, steam turns turbine, turbine turns generator. That shiny new Tesla Model 3 is powered mainly by steam.

We abandoned small steam piston engines simply because large steam turbines are very very much more efficient -- about ten times more efficient. But we never abandoned steam.

  • $\begingroup$ Does this address the environmental effects of a much smaller population continuing to use small-installation steam power (steam cars, effectively)? $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Sep 19 '19 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon: Where does the question say that the people in the fictional world are stupid and continue to use grossly inefficient small-installation steam power? It is very much more efficient to concentrate the steam engines in electric power plants and distribute the power via the electric grid. In the real world the move away from small inefficient steam engines to big efficient steam engines started towards the end of the 19th century; the difference is staggering, and people do not like to pay ten times as much for the same amount of energy. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 19 '19 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ He did say 1980s equivalent. And even today, we still drive inefficient small-installation internal combustion machines -- to the point where they're about to destroy the habitability of our planet. There's your "stupid". $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Sep 19 '19 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ Look at it this way -- when did we get batteries good enough to make practical electric cars? Last week, give or take a decade. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Sep 19 '19 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ Though much of the electricity produced by new natural gas powered plants is actually generated by gas turbines (essentially stationary jet engines), which don't involve steam. Though combined-cycle plants use a second steam-driven stage for better efficiency. energy.gov/fe/how-gas-turbine-power-plants-work $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 20 '19 at 16:18

The energy efficiency of steam engine is (very roughly) 10%, gasoline 20..30%, diesel and steam turbine 40%. Electric motor can convert electricity (not fuel, mind) with 90% efficiency or more. Pardon me if this is not absolute truth. Just to illustrate the point that efficiency of conversion from energy stored in fuel into mechanical energy depends on the type of engine.

When there is plenty of cheap solid fuel (wood or coal) available, the steam engine will make sense in low-tech setting. The environmental impact then depends on the population density and the type of fuel. Using only firewood would be rather sustainable until there are just few engines in each village. Solid fuel burning steam engine will not power your lawnmower or dentist tools, so its use will be limited to larger machines.

The use of coal in steam engine would pollute much more per kilowatt than using the same amount of coal for producing electricity using steam turbine. It is more economical to use liquid fuels in internal combustion engines rather than burning them in steam boiler. So the whole steam concept implies low technology and burning solid fuels in fairly large machines.

However - society on high level of technological development may afford using steam engines when it is willing to throw 90% of energy out as waste heat. Such eccentric behavior can be supported by cheap energy source like fusion power. Virtually endless clean energy for boiling water enables use of steam as fashion statement. It will not be very practical though. Also bit annoying when used in vacuum cleaners and air conditioner.

Regarding the effect on environment, if steam engine is 10% efficient and internal combustion 30% efficient, the effect of steam engines on environment would be 3-4 times worse than using gas and diesel. Expect acid rain, deforestation, smog.


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