I'm looking for a plausible way that humanity could have discovered, developed and then adopted renewable energy + storage instead of fossil fuels as the catalyst for industrialisation.

To be clear the world is the same, fossil fuels still exist: I'm looking for a breakthrough technology, circumstances or event that would cause the world to pursue renewables en-masse instead of relying on coal and then oil for energy and heat production. What would need to happen for humanity to ignore the incredibly high energy density and convenience that fossil fuels provide?

In my world, I'm envisioning a society built on a network of renewables + storage: large scale wind, solar and hydro, plus some kind of storage to solve the intermittency issue. Its also assumed that transport uses electric motors + battery. Essentially what we are working towards now in decarbonising our current economy.

My issue is that while this tech could all have been developed quite early in history, the temptation to use and pursue fossil fuels seems too great for humanity to ignore. I need a set of circumstances where widescale adoption of renewables is as good or better than fossil fuels.

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    $\begingroup$ Related answer to a similar question. Not a dupe I think. $\endgroup$ Feb 15 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ Mankind used renewable energy sources, such as wind power, water power, and animal power for millennia before using fossil fuels. If you look at the big pictiure, the use of fossil fuels, roughly from the beginning of the 19th to the middle of the 21st centuries, is a mere blip on the historical timeline. (And anyway, the Industrial Revolution began with hydropower. The use of coal came only later, when the Industrial Revolution was already in full swing.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 15 at 0:26
  • $\begingroup$ @EveninginGethsemane it is similar, however it incorrectly assumes we can't solve for the transport issue: batteries are a perfectly viable form of portable tech. However I'm struggling to think why 18th century inventors would favor primitive battery tech of the much higher energy density of coal and oil. $\endgroup$
    – Ucinorn
    Feb 15 at 0:53
  • $\begingroup$ This is the same question. Which got closed, unfortunately. worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/207057/… $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Feb 15 at 2:05
  • $\begingroup$ Travel back in time and kill Prometheus. We found black stuff bubbling in the swamp in Pennsylvania and once we found out it burned, game over. Humans are pyromaniacs, because fire brought the dawn of civilization. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 15 at 2:33

5 Answers 5


It Would Take The Atomic Age to Make Us Skip Fossil Fuels

Exactly as you said: A breakthrough in technology that made renewable energy cheaper than the oil bubbling out of our back yards. Remember that the internal combustion engine didn’t come along until the 20th century. Fossil fuels killed the electric car by being cheaper. If Martin Klaproth went further with his experiments with Uranium, we would never need petroleum.

History: Holland

Holland had an incredible economy based only on their famous windmills. They drained swamps, milled lumber, processed grain and food, irrigated fields and did almost all civil activity by windmill. But they did have the advantage of steady and reliable wind energy. The rest of the planet isn’t so lucky; that’s a regional thing.

History: Electric cars

In 1821 Michael Faraday created the first rotating electric motor. Less than a decade later the world was in their back yards strapping these to carts and contraptions trying to move around with them. As early as the 1830s, inventors in Hungary, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US were focusing their efforts on combining these technological advances to create a powered motor vehicle. Batteries were the problem: they were made by mixing chemicals in jars. In the 1860s, a French physicist by the name of Gaston Plante invented the first rechargeable lead-acid battery—a huge breakthrough for electric mobility. This is the time the Studebaker brothers immigrated to America and began their coach-building empire. They had always had their eyes on electric motors, hoping one day to perfect a motorized coach. Finally, in 1901 Studebaker began selling battery electric cars amongst some heavy competition.

1911 Babcock Electric car (1911 Babcock Electric Co. Model 12 Roadster)

But batteries never got lighter. Charging them never got faster. They never got the power of exploding naphtha. Petroleum put dollars in our pockets and we fell in love with the cheap, powerful, convenient gasoline engine.

Studebaker shut down their electric car line in 1911 and began making gasoline cars.

Portability is the key

Gasoline is so easy to carry around, we can’t justify anything else. Wind power is great for Holland, but how do you carry it to Nevada? Solar power is awesome in New Mexico, but how do you box it up and use it in Montreal? Tidal energy is amazing if you’re in the Bay of Fundy, but what good is it to people in the Sahara? Make your electricity portable.

We have Portable Electricity

An electric world needs electricity. We can make an incredible amount of safe electricity anywhere we want today, in any climate and on any terrain, on the land, in the sea, and even on the moon.

It’s called Nuclear Power. In 1954, the Navy launched the first submarine that used radioactive material as a power source. Its name was the USS Nautilus and it was the first submarine to travel to the North Pole in 1958. Before then, submarines used diesel engines and had to go into port for fuel. Nuclear power allowed submarines to run for about twenty years without needing to refuel. Over 160 ships are powered by more than 200 small nuclear reactors today. The Seawolf class submarines originally built 25 years ago have never refueled, and they never will need to refuel. 100 Vesta 20MWt wind turbines (A field full of 20mW Vesta wind turbines which will cover 101 square kilometers of farmland)

While it requires 100 massive wind turbines covering 25,000 acres (101.1 Km$^2$) to provide the brand new Courtenay Wind Farm's 200 megaWatts of power (above), The Virginia-class attack submarines were the first to have a core reactor designed to last the 33-year life of the vessel. It delivers 230 MegaWatts, and fits easily in the 33-foot diameter hull *(below).

Virginia Class Fast Attack Submarine (A 210mW power plant running in a 37 square meter room on a ship. It will never refuel.)

The US Navy hopes to have the first replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine on duty by 2031. When that vessel is launched, the onboard nuclear power plant is expected to last its entire 40-year service life.

It is a steam engine

The power creates almost no carbon emissions. Nothing is burned, there is no exhaust. A nuclear reactor is nothing more than a heat engine; the same engine we fell in love with in the 18th century.

If we had the power of the atom in 1860’s we would have laughed at the drilling and mining and refining required to support the combustion engine, and there would have been affordable, small nuclear plants in every single town. All the sources we talk about today - wind, solar, petroleum, coal, hydroelectric - are only good on earth. When we leave earth, nuclear power will be our only option.

Fission Surface Power reactor on the Moon

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    $\begingroup$ It's not clear how nuclear power would have solved the portability problem. Even if there were a "mini nuclear plant" in every town, you can't put a reactor in every automobile. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Feb 15 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting comment, but from what I can tell you are saying the solution is nuclear, in a small enough form factor to fit in car or truck. We can't do portable nuclear even with modern tech $\endgroup$
    – Ucinorn
    Feb 15 at 4:05
  • $\begingroup$ No I am not saying that. The answer is the same answer we have today. Electric cars plugging into local small nuclear plants, like the ones we safely run in all our ships. Every small town can have one. And we have been doing safe portable nuclear for 70 years now. My son is on a nuclear ballistic submarine, and I trained on one. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 15 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry I don't think this works, nuclear power is not around until the 20th century. I need something to deter people from adopting fossil fuels in the 1700s. $\endgroup$
    – Ucinorn
    Feb 15 at 5:21
  • $\begingroup$ The same thing that we could be using today but stupid people made stupid rules. Except for France. France DGAF. Which war cost them world domination? $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Feb 15 at 8:49

The problem I see in your question is understating how much of human technological development was based on fossil fuels.

I mean you need coal to get from Bronze age to Iron age

To skip from bronze to ... I guess an Atomic era would be a tremendous leap.

But lets give our selves a chance, and limit your scenario to

What would it have taken for the world to skip fossil fuel based power stations?

What do you say? is this acceptable?

If yes, than the answer may be just a small change in perception, first coal based powerplant was commissioned by none other than Tomas Edison a Edison Electric Light Station in 1982 this allowed for electrification of London using DC current. And there was little to no choice, because DC is annoyingly hard to transfer over long distances, you need your Power Station to be within a kilometer I think for the DC Station to be effective. The transfer over long distances, would be later facilitated by AC current, its efficiency further improved using 3-phase AC.

Since the 3-phase AC could be transferred over almost any distance it made sense to use water as the source of the energy for electricity generation, in fact both the first commercial installation Lauffen Power Station in 1892 which transferred the AC current to over 109miles distant Frankfurt, Redlands Power Station (1893), Folsom Power Plant(1895) and famous Tesla Westinghouse Niagara Fall Hydro-Electric Power Station(1895) all used a hydroelectric principle.

It was only later the higher efficiency steam generators/alternators became the primary source of electricity. The acceptance was high because, well for past 13 years coal plants have been used to generate electricity, so what's the problem, just replace the dc generators with alternator.

The point of diversion however is: what if construction of coal based DC power station coincided with the hydroelectric AC powers stations.

I expect that one aspect, the Westinghouse would harp on to promote his AC alternators, would be the quality of air consideration. It would be very easy to point to black lung, the noise, the soot all over, comparing the Niagara fall's clean and CHEAP electricity with coal based station in the middle of the city, would be very easy. Since the AC also just happens to be easier to transfer, it could give a death blow not only to DC in the current war, but also to fossil fuels as a primary source of electric energy.

This could in turn start the renaissance of clean energy generation. Hydroelectric, wind, coastal. All this would be used, the coal plants would be used only when no suitable source would be near by, and effort would be made to get rid of it. The suitable alternatives would later become Nuclear and Solar, but that is way down the line.

At the same time, large effort would be given to electricity storing.

You don't really need any technological breakthrough, only make the fossil fuels seem unappealing at exactly the right time, and the gradual technological improvements will take care of the rest.

  • $\begingroup$ It seems the OP is looking to completely skip coal - all the way back to 18th century. That’s the problem I had with my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 15 at 12:40
  • $\begingroup$ Transmitting AC is better than DC but still has large losses, and generates enormous greenhouse gasses at high power. How are people in Africa or Peru getting hydroelectric power? Many smaller power plants is better than a few gigantic ones. Portability is what made coal and petroleum win; rivers are not portable. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 15 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ Steel was being made with charcoal from trees hundreds of years before using fossil fuels. acoup mining collection It uses large amount of wood. Completely unsustainable for industrial revolution. $\endgroup$ Feb 15 at 22:13

Portable and Efficient Batteries

One of the main problems with electric vehicles for close to a century was that sufficiently high voltage batteries could not be made portable for a long time. With a lucky streak in the research of electricity in the 19th century, it is hypothetically possible that by the time automobiles start becoming common, there is already a large and growing market for high voltage batteries.

Then some bright lad just has to put the two ideas together, and you have a silent, smooth, and non polluting automobile. That in itself would be enough to kill petrol cars in the crib.

And with that done, Ford could then basically take over the entire electric automobile motor industry and mass produce until everything from bikes to Aeroplanes is run by charged batteries.

It will take many lucky breaks, but perhaps a mite of funding from the military or industry can solve that.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that even today we have no idea how to make batteries significantly better than old school lead-acid and which do not require advanced electronics. They had no hope to make working lithium-ion batteries in the 19th century. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 15 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ That is true, but for OP to work, we need for this to happen anyways. $\endgroup$
    – Thales
    Feb 15 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ There was an enormous market for powerful batteries the very moment the electric motor was invented. The world chased that holy grail down with a passion. Naptha came bubbling out of the ground and made the point moot. The battery doesn't need to be just more powerful, it need to be easier than drilling in the swamp for black gold. It almost had to have grown on trees to be more practical. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Feb 15 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ The vast majority of fossil fuel is not used for transportation. Coal power plants had been operating for decades by the time automobiles became common. Even if cars had been all-electric from the very beginning, I fail to see how that would result in a world that eschews fossil fuel. $\endgroup$ Feb 15 at 20:14

You're talking about going from animal traction to electric motors without the heat engine which is a large conceptual leap but not impossible. The two biggest problems are that:

  1. Without coal fired copper refining processes building the infrastructure to generate, let alone transmit, the electrical power that you need to refine the lithium, cobalt, etc... to make the jump to long range battery systems will be next to impossible.
  2. Coal and oil were being used, in isolated areas on a small scale and not usually burned in the case of the latter, by the iron age.

The only solution I can see is a VERY early harnessing of electricity, the late bronze age or earlier; wood is the direct source of all industrial fuel, gold, copper, and it's alloys, are the only widely used metals and extremely good conductors.

An early culture that revered the thunder and sought to understand it's companion, lightening, could build a working Van de Graaff generator, they're not mechanically complex even though they came rather late in our exploration of electromagnetism. From there using animal power and, eventually, wind and/or water to turn the crank is not a big step. Once you have abundant chained lightening experimenting with it's effect on anything and everything is a natural outcome of human curiosity. I would expect someone to work out reliable, though not particularly efficient, electro-reduction (practically not the principles behind it that is), especially of copper and tin, within months of the first reliable generator going online. The shift to magnetic dynamos (which are also electric engines if you reverse the current flow) is a challenging step to work out in a society so radically different to our own but assume it and you have efficient electrical generators that rely on renewable sources of kinetic energy and a society that relies on electricity, rather then thermo-chemistry for all it's metal refining etc...

  • $\begingroup$ They could have used charcoal. And they did. That is not a fossil fuel. Although, admittedly, not a lot cleaner. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Feb 15 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki They did, for a very long time, that's what I mean by wood being the direct source of all industrial fuel during the bronze age, but they ran up against the "limits of photosynthesis", i.e. they needed more carbon rich feed stock than the biomass production of their environment, in the iron age because of just how much metal they were making per person per year and had to start looking elsewhere. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Feb 16 at 8:30

In principle, you'd have to posit that people failed to think of a way to deal with some limitation of the technology you want to skip, but did think of a way to overcome limitations of the technology you want them to use instead.

Windmills were used in Europe to run the mechanisms to grind grain in the Middle Ages. And windmills were used to run pumps to extract water from wells in the American west in the 1800s. So the technology to harness wind power certainly existed.

The leap is to get from wind power in general to wind powering an electric generator.

The basic concept behind an electric generator was invented by Michael Faraday in the 1830s. The first true "power plant" was probably the hydroelectric plant built by Siemens in 1878. The first coal plant was built by Edison and Johnson in 1882.

Now at this point, the issue becomes, "Why did people hook electric generators up to steam engines (powered by coal) and internal combustion engines, instead of to windmills?"

There may be many technical reasons that I don't know about -- I don't claim to be an electrical engineer. But the obvious problem with wind power is that it only works when the wind is blowing, and the output is dependent on the wind speed. With coal, you can run the generator 24 hours a day and you can vary how much coal you burn to depend on demand, and not be at the mercy of the wind.

You could, of course, use the wind to power a generator that charges a battery, and then draw power from the battery. But this requires an entirely separate technology to be developed at the same time as generators: batteries.

So for a society to skip the coal generation stage, you'd basically have to posit either or both of:

  1. They couldn't get steam engines to work, or at least not reliably. The boilers kept leaking or exploding or some such and they couldn't figure out how to solve the problem. Or maybe just suppose that simply no one ever thought of the idea of a steam engine.

  2. Battery technology came much sooner and faster than it did in real life. Some genius figured out how to make an efficient battery, or some lucky tinkerer stumbled on it.


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