Power On…

In this book we measure (the delivery rate of energy, appropriate for continuous, sustainable resources), instead (appropriate for finite, scarce resources) whenever possible. To justify this choice, in this chapter we examine the concepts of power and energy as they relate to both fossil fuels and renewables.

Let’s return to the scientific definition of : a continuous flow of , either being generated or used. It’s not as relevant for coal or oil in the same way as the concept of energy is. Fossil fuels contain energy, but can only create power for electricity or heat for a limited amount of time. Any extraction site will eventually run out of fuel; mines and wells always dry up. The mass of the fuel corresponds to a certain amount of energy content.

The standard unit of mass in this book is a metric ton, equal to 1000 kilograms. Equivalent to just over 2200 pounds, a ton is about the weight of a small car.

For a substance like coal, oil, or fossil methane gas, the mass extracted can be converted into energy content. Each ton of coal can create a certain amount of heat for electricity or industrial processes (10-25 gigajoules of energy per ton, depending on the quality of the coal), and several tons per minute are burned in typical coal power plants. Formulas exist for the amount of pollutants like carbon dioxide, mercury, NOx, and sulfur released from each fossil fuel, and the amount of methane that typically escapes from leaky pipes or fracking wells.

Fossil fuel extraction and carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. Sources: IEA Coal, IEA Oil, IEA Gas, Global Carbon Budget. Fossil methane gas emissions includes flaring.
Fossil fuel World extraction (2019) Carbon dioxide emissions (2019)
Coal 8 billion tons 14 billion tons
Oil 4 billion tons 12 billion tons
Fossil methane gas 2.8 billion tons 8 billion tons

When used to create power, a stock of fossil fuel runs out after a finite amount of time. If the fuel is burned in a power plant, it can only create electricity for a certain amount of time. This leads to units like kilowatt-hours being typical for description of energy. Closely related is the idea that energy costs money, because it comes from a thing that must be extracted.

Texas wind turbines painting by Virginia Wright-Frierson

Instead think about the flows that surround us: the power already embedded in the air, water, and sunlight. If we harness the flows that provide power on a continual basis, there is no need to consider energy content. Similarly there is no fuel cost for the sun or the air. There’s no ownership of renewable resources.

While a coal-fired power plant has to continually purchase coal in order to generate power, a solar panel or wind turbine will generate electricity until its end of life. Of course, both fossil fuel plants and renewables require maintenance, and have a typical lifetime before they need to be replaced. But the lack of fuel cost, or fuel demand, for renewable power is a fundamental difference.

Thinking about instead of  is a critical gateway towards radical visions of a more equitable future. This is why we primarily use units of power in this book instead of energy. Power is about going with the flow and catching the wave, be it light waves, gusts of winds, or ocean swells. Power is utilizing the same sources that have been transferring energy to the Earth’s surface since time immemorial.

Stories of steam

Early adoption of fossil energy at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution occurred in cotton mills in England, who used rotational motion for spinning. Between 1800 and 1840, the industry experienced an almost complete shift from water power, sourced from water wheels placed in rivers in small villages, to coal energy, used in steam engines within urban factories. This early history of coal provides a unique perspective on who benefits from fossil energy versus renewable power, that is valuable to understand as we face the opposite transition today. In his book Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, Andreas Malm argues that the rise of fossil fuels in cotton mills occurred because steam engines fueled by coal allowed owners to control their workers more easily. “Steam gained supremacy in spite of water being abundant, cheaper and at least as powerful, even and efficient,” writes Malm, flipping the traditional narrative which assumes that fossil fuels were necessary to cover increasing energy need in industrializing England.

Coal was not advantageous in price, but it could be burned at any time, far away from its extraction points in the mines. Cotton mills that used coal no longer needed to be in riverside villages, where swift streams could turn water wheels. Coal-powered mills could be moved into cities, where labor was cheap and readily available. Temporal control is facilitated by fossil energy as well, since mills could produce with similar efficiency at any time, independent of streamflow or other external factors. All these factors led to more rapid returns on investment for owners, despite less efficient use of energy and immediate environmental externalities in the form of acrid air pollution spreading across English cities.

Since fossil energy usage rose out of its utility for the profit generation rather than to serve consumer demand, Malm rejects the notion of the Anthropocene, the term for the age of human influence in which humans create an increasingly recognizable effect on the Earth’s ecosystems as part of some inevitable upward march towards increasing energy intensity. He prefers the term Capitalocene, which emphasizes the role of the economic system in exponentially expanding energy usage and its accompanied externalities.

Malm’s analysis reminds us that energy decisions are not always made in response to consumer demand, and that the cheapest option does not necessarily win. Power generation from fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables are always dependent on power relations among owners, workers, governments, and citizens. We’ll discuss this second meaning of power, the socio-political sense, in the next chapter.

We conclude our tour of early fossil fuel history by synthesizing the ways in which the disadvantages of renewable power sources for industrial magnates can be turned into advantages for the rest of us. Renewables are less easily localized in space, but this means that an efficient way of bringing them to the masses is on a single house or neighborhood scale. Local power generation immediately brings resilience and self-sufficiency to communities. Temporal localization of power generation, usually seen as a disadvantage of renewables, could potentially serve as an escape route to dodge the ever-expanding demands on our leisure time from our jobs. With the rise of home offices, mobile devices, and gig economy jobs that can be worked at any time, we are expected to dedicate an ever increasing fraction of the day in the service of profit. Resyncing with the rhythms of natural flows of power can help reclaim valuable hours away from work, which make life worth living.


The Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development organizes for climate and economic justice in the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan and Korea.

  • “APMDD believes in social transformation that is all-encompassing and interrelated: it is economic, political, cultural and environmental and has class, ethnicity/race and gender dimensions. As its contribution to social transformation, it will focus on: People-Centered Development, Economic and Environmental Rights and Justice”
  • Follow them on social media to read about their campaigns resisting new fossil fuel infrastructure, exposing those who benefit financially from extractive industries, for women’s rights, and for debt justice.