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So this is a slight revision of my earlier idea, of a world that entirely lacks fossil fuels. So basically the big idea I'm interested in is an industrial revolution that fully goes through with the advent of nuclear power after starting with easier sources like wind, hydro, and biofuels. I'm also thinking about how to go from there to solarpunk, but the problem is that solarpunk doesn't really fit as well without climate change.

So is it plausible that the only fossil fuel reserves that exist are extremely hard to access in an economic fashion, to the point that they are only really used after nuclear power was developed first?

The timeline would thus be that fossil fuels exist, but nuclear power comes first in the sense of being such a significant fuel source that can electrify the world, before nuclear accidents and possible wars make it much less appealing. This then leads to lower energy return fossil fuels being used at an even faster rate than historically, as there is now an even greater fear of nuclear power after much of the world has industrialized and desperately needs more fuel. A world with a mix of extremely inefficient fossil fuels and mostly outdated and dangerous nuclear power could then transition into a more solarkpunk world over time as they are dealing with a faster rate of emissions causing climate change over a shorter time period. They would also likely have a higher rate of deforestation given the smaller number access to fossil fuels, which would also have significant effects in terms of climate change.

I think the primary change could come from a lack of coal reserves but in which they have mostly shale oil and natural gas that often requires fracking, so it is less obvious that they would be economical fuel sources early on.

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  • $\begingroup$ There are lots of options for renewable energy sources other than solar. It's extremely unlikely any civilization ending up going for renewable sources would limit themselves only to solar. Given the range of these and the problems in finding fossil fuel sources I don't see why these would not be the first option for power, not the last after nuclear. It is also not clear what tech level you are describing : 1950, 2000's, near future, what ? $\endgroup$ – StephenG Sep 28 '20 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenG Solarpunk doesn't mean solar energy as the only source, it is simply a term for the genre in which the world forms in rebellion to the standard set by cyberpunk of economic devastation and more corporate control. $\endgroup$ – Adam Reynolds Sep 28 '20 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ Frankly your explanation of solarpunk doesn't make any sense to me. I still fail to see multiple renewable power sources are not viable in your world. Cliamte change or the lack of it might change the balance of difference sources required, but it does not change that multiple sources will be available unless you define why this would be clearly.. I don't see how your edit clarifies the tech level. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Sep 28 '20 at 3:38
  • $\begingroup$ I'm having trouble following what the specific question is. Are you asking whether severe scarcity of fossil fuels is plausible, or about how it might shape the development of civilization, or about what alternate energy sources people will use? And how does any of this relate to the question of genre? $\endgroup$ – Cadence Sep 28 '20 at 3:40
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The only clear question I can see after your edit is this :

So is it plausible that the only fossil fuel reserves that exist are extremely hard to access in an economic fashion, to the point that they are only really used after nuclear power was developed first?

The problem here is that developing nuclear power without fossil fuels is hard to imagine. You need a huge array of technologies to make nuclear power possible on the scale you require and that means industrial scale complex hydrocarbon based chemistry is hard to avoid.

Just the infrastructure to support developing nuclear power is immense. You are, I think, falling into the trap of focusing too much on power. Power alone will not produce resources.

You cannot develop nuclear power without all the other stuff. You have to mine, transport, refine and protect rare resources and to do that you need to have all the other things in place. Material requirements for power generation and distribution don't get better just because you use nuclear power. And nuclear power does not come in small packages - you need huge stations to efficiently produce energy.

Finally it's somewhat doubtful that a world that ran through all the easily accessible fossil fuels but also had access to nuclear did not also run through all the (relatively) easily accessible nuclear fuel resources - and these are not common at all. They'd more than likely turn to nuclear (and anything else) as fossil fuels became scarcer and just burn through the easy stuff. It is very unlikely you would develop fossil fuel dependency to that point without developing nuclear power in parallel.

The tech level here is important. Asimov's Foundation novels were set in far future where his Foundation was able to develop better smaller nuclear technology because they had to and had the scientific resources to do it. Even that is a heck of a stretch in real terms, but it also requires a future far enough away to have a much, much more sophisticated technology. My sense is that this is not what you are aiming at, and without that you probably loose any way to achieve the nuclear power option you want. In principle you can massage and force a story to work the way you want, but it would never sound natural. It would be a kind of "handwavium got us here" (which is basically what Asimov did to enable his large story telling framework).

Note however that even the solarpunk option requires access to non-renewable resources to develop, build and maintain, as well as the problems of supporting a workforce, homes, transport, medical care and all the rest that power does not solve.

So I am doubtful it is really plausible, but that is different from saying you could not hide that from a reader by carefully not trying to explain it.

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    $\begingroup$ Not entirely true, as you don't really need fossil fuels for mining if you have abundant electricity. Even today, a lot of mining equipment is electric. WRT nuclear power, there's a reason the main Manhattan Project production facilities were located at Oak Ridge and Hanford: access to abundant hydroelectric power from the TVA and Columbia River dams. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 28 '20 at 5:15
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I think you missed my point : power isn't enough. You need masses of other resources. You don't just burn through fossil fuels when you do that, you also use up all the resources needed to build an industry. Power alone won't bring them back. Everything would be orders of magnitude harder to make and access and maybe even completely impractical or impossible. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Sep 28 '20 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ Not really, because given enough energy, most of those other resources can readily be recycled, or substituted. E.g. rather than using coal to heat your iron smelters, you can use electricity, so you only need enough carbon for refining, and can get that from biological sources. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 29 '20 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I do not agree with this idea. It's an abstraction of idealized physics, but it's not the way things work in practice. In practice that level of recycling is extremely difficult. Many of the processes (which we don't really know how to do on an industrial scale and would be tricky even in a lab). We've be burning fossil fuels for a long time and undoing (i.e. reversing) the chemical effects of that on our environment is not something we know how to do now even if we had energy surplus to try. Reversing things is just not as easy as you make out , it may be impossible in practice. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Sep 29 '20 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ We must be thinking about different things. I'm thinking about things like iron, copper, aluminum, and other things that are mined. All of those could be produced without the use of fossil fuels. They're already recycled to some degree today, and that could be considerably increased if the economic motivation was there. Nothing to do with reversing the effects of burning fossil fuels. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 30 '20 at 16:34
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Abundant Uranium:

I am trying to see the exact nature of the question here, but I am assuming it is about how plausible your scenario is, not only about petroleum and coal.

In a world where physicists deduce the use and function of fissile materials at an extremely early stage in the industrial revolution, and where there are huge amounts of uranium available as easy surface deposits in the premier superpower of the time, You might have some very primitive nuclear power plants available quite early. These would be dangerous and polluting in the extreme. In out world, uranium was discovered in 1789, and the industrial revolution started in 1760. Without ready fossil fuels, water and wood could start this, but it would move much slower. Acid refinement of uranium would be available early, but this would not get you a nuclear power plant. The Oklo formation in Africa suggests that more concentrated sources or uranium CAN exist naturally, and result in sustained nuclear reactions. To tell you if these could result in a useable nuclear power source early in the industrial revolution your would need the input of a nuclear science engineer.

Given very poor quality petroleum deposits, deep coal, and limited natural gas, it is further possible these materials might not be readily available in quantities sufficient to fuel an industrial revolution, or at a practical cost. To have poor coal and gas reserves, you need geological conditions that leave these deposits under the sea (many are), very deep ( a lot of coal IS), or so depleted that people in the industrial revolution never consider them as fuel.

The Permian extinction, which led to a warmer world and the removal of thermoregulatory synapsids (our ancestors) from preeminence to be replaced by therapsids (the dinosaurs) was believed to be triggered by destruction of large coal deposits in Siberia by volcanic processes. Such processes could have consumed much of the ready coal, or the coal could have been subducted into the ocean. If a previous cycle of industrialization had occured on your planet, or a very long period of people using up all the surface deposits of coal, then coal would be a forgotten fuel.

Oil deposits were usually linked to the presence of tar at the surface, but a bacteriological agent (a spore-forming anaerobic organism in ancient history that got deposited with oil-forming organics and ate them slowly from the inside, leaving some kind of unuseable sludge, for example) could account for a lack of readily useable oil, so inventors like Edwin Drake would have little to go on.

I see a complicating factor due to the use of wood as a replacement for much of petroleum in various industrial applications. Wood use in China predated the use of coal and only destructive deforestation led to coal becoming an economic driver. Early trains were wood-fired, and the cheapness of coal pushed out wood. Wood would be polluting, but ultimately carbon-neutral. However, in the long-term, the demands on tree growth could not sustain the industrial revolution.

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No fossil fuels gives more problems than you might think

Fossil fuels are most well known for their role as fuel. However, during the process of refining oil there are a ton of by products that are used all over the world. It is used in medicine, maintaining machines with lubricants, asphalt, wax and much, much more.

It would make sense if these are replaced by one or another. Without abundant oil they would need to find alternatives for each of these. Some might actually be in higher quality, but it's likely it'll be more intensive to make the replacements for each in most cases.

All this being said, I think it isn't impossible to have an industrial revolution without fossil fuels. Without fossil fuels there might be a higher pressure to create functional electric motors, as burning trees and such is highly intensive. With great advancements in batteries or things like electrified rails it's also easier to store a lot of energy in a moving vehicle. These would be the driving force behind the new revolution, albeight it might be slower then one with fossil fuels. But when the sufficient advancements have been made, I would hazard it would propell the advancements much faster than in our world.

Electricity is much more valuable these days and we're only now advancing a lot in battery power and alternative power generation to fossil fuels. If there was no dependency on fossil fuels, it's likely that they put a lot more effort in them from the start, as progress there is where the money is. Nuclear fuel might not be required, as personal power to increase the distance of personal vehicles would be quite important. And a distributed power creation is much better, as you have no transport loss (unless they invent a room temperature super conductor).

I see no reason why climate change has to be a thing for solarpunk to happen. If you have such advancements, any attempt at fossil fuels that previously were too difficult (or possibly replacements, like sunflower oil) will seem crude. They smell and are bad for your health. They might be outlawed as they are a bad alternative by that time. Or simply the shock of a (near) environmental disaster, like CFK, is enough to scare them and ban most polluting forms.

So in short, I think advancement at the start would be much slower, if not glacial. But not relying on fossil fuels can give rise to a lot of important changes. Little access to something like asphalt would give rail systems or other creative alternatives much more importance for example. No abuntant energy in coal would give rise to batteries and motors and even electric smelters. As each of these are the main source of economy, they will be the subject of a lot of research. When they finally advance into the second industrial evolution, they are actually in a better shape in many ways than the fossil fueled world we lived in.

Then again, this is a lot of speculation. Still, it makes sense to me to advance the world with electricity when fossil fuels are (largely) absent.

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Chemophilic Bacteria

You can not necessarily prevent the formation of fossil fuels on a world where life evolves, but perhaps you can create competition for them. If you introduce a chemophilic organism that simple eats up all of the world's fossil fuels, then you can make coal and petroleum very rare. This can also make storing and using fossil fuels much more difficult if there is a significant risk of your fuel becoming contaminated by something that can consume it leaving you with a seized up engine and gas tank full of incombustible tar.

But that won't really help your case...

Before people were burning coal and oil, we were burning wood and charcoal. The lack of fossil fuels would simply mean we would remain reliant on this unpleasant source of power for longer. As the industrial revolution takes hold, the oil industry would be replaced with a rampant lumber industry. Deforestation would be accelerated, but so would the economic incentive for farmed firewood. Before you get to nuclear power, nations would set aside millions of acres to the task of growing vegetation that can be processed into bioplastics, biodiesel, and just plain burned.

This industry would develop all of the same hegemonic powers over government and industry that you see in the oil industry making ousting it with better, cleaner, future power sources far more difficult than fossil fuels because it would actually fix several of the reasons not to use fossil fuels. Not only is wood a renewable resource, but it creates a complete carbon cycle; so, there is no runaway greenhouse effect to worry about. All the CO2 from burned wood just gets sucked right back into the next generation of farmed lumber.

So, a world without fossil fuels may actually be LESS likely to lead to a solar punk future.

Alternative Route to Solar Punk

Instead of trying to make burning things less competitive, perhaps you could change something in your setting to make solar power more competitive. The biggest hurdles in solar power are the cost of refining high purity silicon crystiles, and the cost of storing power for later.

A big part of what makes fossil fuels more appealing than bio fuels is that you can just pull them out of the ground and they take very little effort past that point to turn into power on demand. So, just follow this same logic. If your world has caves full of large naturally occurring silicon crystals, then all you need to do is mine these crystals, cut them up, and you have cheap solar power. As for the other main cost (batteries), there there are industrial scale solutions that are WAY cheaper than batteries for storing large amounts of potential energy. For example, many modern solar farms are now paired with closed circuit hydro electric systems instead of batteries. Basically, you create two water reservoirs (one higher than the other.) Then during the day you use the excess solar power to pump water from the low reservoir to the higher one, and at night you let the power flow back down to the lower reservoir while turning hydro electric turbines.

In short, simply make solar power so darn cheap that it out competes fossil fuels.

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