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My goal is to create a world somewhere on the line of steampunk and solarpunk, where what we call alternative energies are actually more economically practical than combustion. It's a fantasy book, so magic is central, but the civilization would be comparable to our own today (no digital tech, but more advanced in terms of energy production, architecture, engineering, etc.).

I have a magical explanation for this, which is basically that the fire god was chopped up and put into the world when it was created (into the body to earth, breath to air, blood to water, power into the sun), so there's more ambient energy in these sources, and it's more readily extracted.

Is there a scientific principle or constant I could change that would help me justify this more than magically? I could also just make it so that petrol/coal don't exist (or don't exist as much), but I'm hoping there's some theoretical scientific explanation for why "green energy" just works better here. Thanks!

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    $\begingroup$ You did not mention wood burning. Do they have fire at all? How do they generate steam? Or is it just ab absence of oil/coal based technologies? How about methane and such gases? The easiest solution would be some event that prevented organic matter from turning into oil, perhaps. $\endgroup$ Jun 26 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ Alternately, are these people 'human'? Decrease the oxygen content such that combustion is not possible. $\endgroup$ Jun 26 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ I don't get this question. Hydropower and wind power were used for thousands of years before the invention of the steam engine. Sailing ships used wind power. Water mills used hydropower. The industrial revolution began with hydropower. The first factories were powered by water wheels; steam engines burning coal came later. Just set your story in the 17th century: there are quite a few factories around, all powered by water wheels, and no coal burning engine in sight. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 26 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP to be fair, no wind power is asked about and the hydro power is specifically hydroelectric. So only solar and geothermal can be potentially used without electricity according to the question. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 26 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ You might want to research Iceland. 99% of their electricity is from green energy, particularly geothermal. Lava flow is hot enough to melt copper. Geothermal is hot enough to boil water, adequate to meet all cooking and heating needs. A thermally active planet is all you need. Could even explain why there is no methane, oil or coal. Iceland has none of these. un.org/en/chronicle/article/… - $\endgroup$ Jun 27 at 3:05

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The road not taken

Energy comes in many forms. The existence of electricity has been known at least 2000 years BCE. It might not be known at the time what it actually was or how it worked. 600 BCE more research was done into static electricity, showing the 'magnetic' effects of rubbing things together. Electricity has surfaced here and there for various purposes. Numbing effects, giving shocks as entertainment for others and the like.

The fact that electricity has been known about, gives many options for people to start research into it. Research that with a bit of luck can stumble on the fact it can be used for moving objects. If people then start searching to increase these effects as well as generating them, you have a path to electric transport.

Steam engines might not be focused on before the movement power of electricity is discovered. Although we've burned things since we 'discovered' fire, the locomotion came much later. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that we never think to use steam as a locomotive power. Or not at a frand scale. Just like electricity, burning has been around for a long time before they thought to really use it for locomotion.

If we're talking about internal combustion engine with gas or oil, it is a difficult to capture and refine substance. Electricity could easily start earlier than these engines.

In fact, that actually has happened.

Although there might've been steam driven cars before that, an electric motor with batteries was created in 1834, while the first combustion engine seems to have arrived 1860. If batteries and electric generation improved quicker, it would allow to dominate the market. A combustion engine might never apprear as a contender. Indeed, according to some (conspiracy) theories the electric car had a fighting chance, but was brought down by the gas powered cars due to economic gain. Companies saw they could make more money as they could also sell more expensive fuel. So they made sure it wouldn't be a viable alternative.

From finding motive power from electricity it's just a few steps to put a lot of research efforts in electricity generation and storage.

TLDR

Due to how research doesn't follow a standard path, electricity could easily be 'invented' much earlier and become the main power. It has been seen and known about for ages, allowing research to take an interest and luck out on finding a power for movement. It's relatively easy to transport. Storage is more complex, but batteries have existed a long time. Better versions will be researched quite diligently, as it's where a lot of economic gain lies. It can simply be the best alternative.

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    $\begingroup$ The first steam engines were built around 1710, a century and half before 1860. And yes, they were powered by (external) combustion. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 26 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ Also, electric current (not quite the same thing as static electricity) is easily produced with water power, and (if you have sufficient topographic relief & rainfall) it's generally cheaper than other generation. They've been around since the 1880s, about as long as electric power transmission. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 26 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP do you have a link to this combustion steam engine? I cannot find it. I'll change the answer accordingly. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 26 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane: Most steam engines work by combusting a fuel to produce heat to boil the water to make steam. You are thinking of internal combustion engines; but external combustion engines do exist, and have preceded internal combustion engines for a significant length of time. External combustion engines are still in use, mostly in the form of steam turbines. (Only "most" steam engines because some steam engines get the heat from atomic fision reactions, which are not combustion.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 26 at 17:48
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP you're right. I forgot. I've updated the answer to reflect this. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 26 at 20:37
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Indeed, I will turn my comment into an answer.

There is one area on Earth that exactly fits your requirements. It has absolutely no oil, gas, or coal reserves. Yet it obtains almost all of its power needs domestically, through renewable resources.

Iceland.

With just a bit of handwaving, no real need for magic otherwise, no physical laws are broken, you can have a thriving industrial steampunk society. No combustion necessary.

Scale up Iceland to a continent size. Geothermal vents supplying steam everywhere. Hot enough to cook with, heat the houses with, and even drive generators. Lots of water for hydro powered wheels and mills. Can also be used to provide power for turning and drop-forging metals.

For even higher temperatures, Iceland also has continuous lava flows. Lava is hot enough to melt copper, make glass, and process other elements. Here is where the handwaving cones in. The trick would be to have small, continuous lava flows that can be controlled and directed. Copper does not have to be formed into wires to generate electricity, one can mold and hammer it into bars that do nicely. Put the raw copper ore into clay molds, flow the lava over it, you have copper bars. Okay, maybe lots of impurities, but it will suffice. The water wheel mills can provide energy for forging these bars into useable products. Place copper bars around a water wheel, and natural magnets, and one has an effective but crude generator. With electricity comes the ability to process even more metals, and produce machines. Process copper in continuously improving refinements and build better and better generators.

Plus, lava retains it heat for a substantial period of time. One could imagine an industry where lava is cut into sections while still very hot, and used for such things as crude ceramic kilns and glass molds.

As for why there is no fossil fuel engines, Iceland has no fossil fuels except wood. Come to think of it, Hawaii doesn't either. No volcanic area does. As far as I know, fossil fuels can not form under such volcanic conditions.

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  • $\begingroup$ (wood is not a "fossil" fuel) $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Jun 27 at 21:22
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Fossil fuels didn't pick up steam on Earth (pun intended) because of oil. Coal is plentiful and accessible in certain areas without complicated machinery. Wood and peat were also early fuel sources.

Coal all came to be during the Carboniferous era, between when trees evolved lignin, and bacteria evolved the ability to break it down. If you want to hamper the adoption of fossil fuels, imagine a world without a long Carboniferous era. Of course, that would be a very different world, with a lot more carbon in the atmosphere. It depends how much you want to handwave.

Perhaps the most accessible technology for capturing useful amounts of solar energy is capturing it as heat. You can actually store large amounts of heat energy from solar by heating liquid in solar collectors and pumping it through pipes into the ground. It turns out that heat doesn't migrate through the ground as fast as we usually think, and there's a lot of heat capacity in the ground. Most of the heat you pump down there will still be recoverable up to a year later. This means you can create stored geothermal energy from solar energy with relatively simple methods.

Geothermal can be used directly for heating buildings and even driving steam turbines. You could smelt ores (maybe?), make big machines and factories that way. You could run pumps for irrigation and pumping water out of mines, etc. You could have an electricity grid once you invent generators. But you will not have portable power. The energy density is too low. Perhaps you could use compressed air motors for short range vehicles like we do now. Fossil fuels are very attractive for powering vehicles. And once you have steam engines, you'll have access to oil unless you handwave that away too.

Now there is one thing that blows the energy density of fossil fuels out of the water: nuclear fission. Solar thermal plus geothermal would get you access to uranium by mining. You could run centrifuges to refine it. Remember, the first nuclear bomb was created before computers were in widespread use. We understood enough about electricity to make generators before the internal combustion engine was huge. Plus, the first steam engines ran on wood.

So I think it's feasible to get where you're going if you somehow get rid of coal as an easy solution, get rid of oil as an easy solution, and accept that big ships, airships, etc., need to use nuclear.

Now methane... That's hard to ignore. Not sure what you'd do to handwave away methane.

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  • $\begingroup$ Enriching uranium is not necessary if the planet is "young" enough to have a balance of uranium isotopes that support fission. We discovered natural "nuclear reactors" because the chemical chemical composition of the soil matched that of spent nuclear fuel. A civilization that discovered this phenomenon could theoretically figure out how it worked and build reactors of their own to produce steam. Given that radiation is invisible and the mechanics of fission being quite complex such a civilization may develop a kind of religion or mythology around the construction of a fission reactor. $\endgroup$
    – MacGuffin
    Jun 27 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ @MacGuffin - that's where geothermal comes from anyway... Nuclear reactions in the core. $\endgroup$ Jun 27 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ No, that heat comes from radioactive decay, a different process than fission.. $\endgroup$
    – MacGuffin
    Jun 28 at 6:25
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I don't understand why you would even need much energy if there's no digital tech.

However, instead of changing such a big thing like a scientific constant, you can just say that their planet has a new type of metal which induces electricity in itself when introduced to sun rays. Or some other rays specifically (like gamma, infrared, etc)

Thus introducing not the solar power we are used to here on earth, but solar power in concept and thus cleaner power in general.

And there would be no explanation needed as to why that metal exists on that planet and not on earth.

At least, for the most part, that can be ignored. Because stuff around the universe is not present in all planets. You can very easily reason that this metal simply does not exist on earth, but does on that planet.

Plus, introducing a new type of metal is more related to magic than changing a scientific constant.

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  • $\begingroup$ Transportation, industrial processes, &c. Unless you're doing something silly like bitcoin mining, digital doesn't really take all that much power. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 27 at 17:42
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Your world is not old. No fossils, no fossil fuels.

Just because the environment is something like ours doesn't mean it's history is anything like ours. What if the gods created it a mere 5000 years ago?

Scott suggested you haven't had a long Carboniferous era; maybe it hasn't even happened yet? And if there weren't dinosaurs (or other organisms) a hundred million years ago, there wouldn't be oil in the ground, right?

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Simply state that the biological waste and corpses of the common life of your planet do not burn, nor do they decay into something that burns. It is one of the many miracles of our real world planet that it's life and life byproducts are combustible. I don't know specifically what chemistry would have to change but I have no difficulty believing that very small changes could do the trick. Your reader's probably won't need a scientific explanation

Then all you need to do is stay consistent in the rest of your world building. For example, you can't have a fire-god on a world where things don't burn. So make it an energy-god, full of the abstract non-fire energy which your magic feeds upon.

Edit : In pursuit of consistency, you probably shouldn't "state" that things don't burn as I originally suggested. Burn would be a foreign concept to the inhabitants of your world, so they certainly wouldn't mention it during narration or exposition. Keep the chemistry answer in your back pocket for use during author-interviews or sci-fi convention q&a sessions. It is always nice to have real reasons for the way your fictional world works, even when your story lacks any way for you to expose those reasons.

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    $\begingroup$ If things do not burn, there is no fire. Without fire, no civilisation could emerge, as people need fire for cooking, heating the houses and for early farming (fertilising though burning), not to mention things like pottery or metal processing $\endgroup$
    – Archelaos
    Jun 26 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Archelaos, unless the as-of-yet undefined energy behind the magic fulfilled those needs during the pre-civilization age. $\endgroup$ Jun 26 at 19:13
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    $\begingroup$ Then why was the magic abandoned? BDW if you solve all problems with magic, only magic will develop not the technology. $\endgroup$
    – Archelaos
    Jun 26 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Archelaos even if we have magic we search for better alternatives. Just like in real life. Sometimes it's because we're curious, which is why the horse has phased out and not been improved from a certain point in time. Sometimes it's because one way won't satisfy, like weapons complementing each other, or not everyone is mounted as we don't have enough horses/it's too resource intensive. The magic might be sufficient for the start, but when we want to expand, we need something better. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 27 at 6:37
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Geothermal evolves from waterwheels.

Waterwheels are ancient and have been employed for millenia to harness the energy of moving water.

In your world, geothermal features are common. Persons familiar with waterwheels first make constructs where geothermally heated water emerges from the ground lift to turn the wheel. The next step is to use the energy and pressure directly to turn the wheel. Steam pistons are built into the ground where there is heat but not hot water to duplicate the effects of heated groundwater.

The problem with geothermal is that it is not portable. You are tied to places where the earth provides heat. Factories and mills are definitely doable but you cannot make a steamship or steam locomotive without portable heat.

Maybe the available geothermal heat means your people dont need to burn things for heat and so they are not fire makers. You could make portable heat that is not from burning things. Maybe nuclear power from refined isotopes? Maybe solar concentrators. People want to duplicate the geothermal steam engines.

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The great fire of Alexandria

When 90% of knowledge has to be re-invented from scratch, people work with what they have.

In your world, electricity was invented by an ancient empire long ago, used primarily used for electroplating metals. Waterwheels combined with magnetic dynamos are used to generate the requisite electrical power.

This was a trade secret of the Ancient Empire, along with the waterwheel / dynamo setup they used to power the technology.

Then the fire came. A lot of knowledge was destroyed. In their panic, certain treatises critical to the use of dynamos to generate electricity were saved but many copies were scattered to the wind in the process.

Not only is the secret now out, but most treatises on mathematics and geometry are lost, hindering the development of practical engineering by a couple of thousand years.

With the invention of the electric lantern, the rest is history.

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Petroleum is derived from fossilized organic material such a zooplankton and algae.

It your world it is possible oil eithe didn't form because the organic material didn't settle into an oxygen-less environment and decomposed quickly leaving no material to form oil, or if it did fall into such an environment and oil was formed it is buried so deep it had not been discovered.

Regarding coal, the quality of coal deposits vary around the world. In your world coal could be contaminated with a lot more nasty elements such as sulfur and mixed with sediment during it formation that it makes a horrible substance to burn producing all types of horrible wastes including sulfur dioxide, which quickly turns into atmospheric sulfuric acid.

The inhabitants of your world fear coal and the wastes it produces when burned that they ban the use of coal.

Alternatively, any coal deposits could be very thin and very deep and thus not worth digging up and using.

Because of this, they concentrate on and develop other forms of energy. In their very early development they may initially use coal some as a heat source to get some metals, but once they have a minimum, critical mass of metals they abandon coal for cleaner sources of heat.

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It's worth breaking down what it means to suggest that fossil fuels are more "economical" than the alternatives.

On this, I would highly recommend Andreas Malm's excellent Fossil Capital.

Malm draws on a Marxist analysis to show that factory owners in Britain at the start of the industrial revolution didn't in fact chose coal as a fuel because it was more efficient or cheaper than water. Rather they embraced it because of the control it gave them.

Coal could run reliably during the working day, whereas factories powered by water had to respond to the vagaries of the climate and landscape. There were proposals which would have allowed owners to minimise some of this, building networks to carry water to factories, but these required cooperation between businesses which were otherwise in competition.

Additionally, water power required factories be built in an appropriate location, whereas coal powered production could take place in cities which already had a large population owners could draw a workforce from.

One possible basis for a solarpunk industrial revolution (?) is to imagine that early labour disputes - which as Malm argues sometimes targetted steam power directly - played out differently. With a different array of forces, owners might have been more open to embracing alternative power sources.

I expect not everybody will accept Malm's analysis nor to trudge through all 500 pages of the book to better understand it. But I mention it here to suggest that one doesn't have to look to 'scientific' explanations for your society, they may also be located in society.

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  • $\begingroup$ Coal power brought the Industrial Revolution (or First Industrial Revolution) to the UK. By the 1970s and 1980s there was a concern over the use of coal, and the influence the coal industry had on the nation. This lead Thatcher to embrace nuclear fission as an alternative. If we are going to put real world events and use them to influence how to build an imaginary world then take that into consideration. It would not be a big leap to imagine a world that skipped over coal and petroleum and went straight from wind and water power to nuclear fission power. $\endgroup$
    – MacGuffin
    Jun 28 at 11:28

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