I've been told that electricity is run primarily by fossil fuels--coal, oil and natural gas. Electricity has been a growing commodity since Thomas Edison made the light bulbs possible to mass-produce, thus mass-merchandise to the public.

The scenario is the end of the 19th/turn of the 20th century. Electricity networks were still new but growing in allure. Is it possible for electrical power grids to run independently of fossil fuel?

  • $\begingroup$ So you're asking about an alternate history? $\endgroup$ Aug 15 '16 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ I considered that tag, but it's way too specific. $\endgroup$ Aug 15 '16 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ The tag description simply reads "For questions that ask what might have happened if history had taken a different path." How is it too specific? $\endgroup$ Aug 15 '16 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ What are you talking about? The tags are "reality-check" and "fuels", nothing more. $\endgroup$ Aug 15 '16 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ I thought the alternate-history tag might be appropriate for this question, but you said it wasn't. I offered the tag description to support my position. $\endgroup$ Aug 15 '16 at 3:36

I believe that hydropower is the best option, with wind as a distant second.

  • Solar and nuclear power are too advanced for your timeframe.
  • Wind and water were already used for various industrial purposes.
  • Water is more reliable than wind.

Simply assume that the civilization which made the industrial breakthroughs for an electric power grid was already building major waterworks.

  • $\begingroup$ Consider using wood in the same way as coal, it requiers huge forests but can be done. $\endgroup$
    – lijat
    Aug 15 '16 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ @lijat, I expect that would lead to widespread deforestation. Sustainable use would require huge forests within easy transport distance of the cities, but the same land would also be needed for agriculture to feed the cities. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Aug 15 '16 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ no need to let the trees grow big, cut them down after 10 years or so. and use fertilizer $\endgroup$
    – lijat
    Aug 15 '16 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Make charcoal adjecent to the farm, and then transport. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Aug 15 '16 at 18:48

We talking stuff like Hydro electric dams, solar panels and wind turbines? Or something else entirely that we haven't already thought of? I was thinking of a city run entirely on people riding bicycles to make power (like a giant hand cranked radio, just spinning the dynamo). In any of those cases, it would depend how efficient the generation of the power is compared to the efficiency of the people using it. There's also Nuclear power, which uses uranium (also not a fossil fuel). So yeah, it's possible. There's plenty of options besides fossil fuel. Just so happens that's what humanity uses because it's cheap and for now is abundant.

  • $\begingroup$ So it's possible for a pre-WW1 cityscape to build wind turbines and solar panels? $\endgroup$ Aug 15 '16 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey if you can make a turbine for hydro electric power, you could probably adapt it for wind power. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Aug 15 '16 at 3:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Solar panels cannot be made until you have the ability to dope silicon affordably (1947 was our first transistor). However, there are ways to capture the energy of the sun using more traditional approaches, such as steam turbines. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 15 '16 at 3:16

A commodity electricity can be run without burning. The evidence is current trend of smart/eco houses. Didn't Edison himself powered his estate with waterwheel on a minor creek?

However, the the civil utilities aren't the biggest power consumer. Even now in industrial countries the consumption of energy by population is less than the power requirements of industry.

The factories are highly unlikely to be sated by a few windmills. If you forbid the coal powered powerplants, the industry sites will fall back to either individual generation departments, which might not be as efficient as specialized facilities, or, if that is prohibited as well, directly to coal powered furnaces and steam powered conveyors, which are not only even less efficient, but also reduce the available production methods.

It could be possible to power a factory or two with electric dams but not on the same scale, at least without causing landscape and climate alteration noticeably in process. Other sources, wind, tidal, atomic rely heavily on the availability of advanced technologies and materials. So it is unlikely that Curie followers could construct a working nuclear reactor ahead of induction furnaces, much less likely is someone building a wind generator of industry-worthy scale.

Thus, without fossil electricity, the industry would limp at a fraction of its historical pace. Sciences to a certain extent are dependent on the instruments that are available and would not be as thriving as well.

So, the Earth by today would still be a rural country, with no iphones or facebook, with modest successes in most sciences save for mathematics. Basically what your average steampunk world is.


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