Philips Koninck, Bleachfields near Haarlem, the Netherlands, ca. 1670-80
If you enlarge the picture above, you can identify at least 4 wind mills in the painting. In the 17th century there were about 10,000 of those in the Netherlands, used for water pumping for land reclamation, grain processing or as a saw mills, for planks to build ships. Because of that technological advantage, at some point, the Netherlands had three times more ships than the rest of the world combined. These windmills were an essential ingredient for the Dutch preeminent position in the 17th century and the Dutch Golden Age. With these ships, the Netherlands could transport products from all over the world to Europe and sell them at a hefty profit:
How much power could these windmills generate? In those days about 30 kW. How much power can a healthy human male generate. Go to your gym, sit on a bicycle or rowing machine and verify on the display that it is not too difficult to generate 100 Watt for half an hour. For an entire day, that’s hard work. So that wind mill is worth at least 300 men, provided the wind is blowing, which happens a lot of the time in the Netherlands.
Note that similar stories can be told about the 19th century British empire, enabled by its coal and steam. A 30 kW steam engine was much cheaper than a conventional Dutch windmill of 30 kW. With steam and coal, trains could be powered, and 19th century steamboats were more powerful, reliable and faster than the Dutch sailing boats of the 17th century. Hence the 19th century was British, not Dutch.
The Americans of the 20th century had an even more powerful energy source: oil and gas. With those they could fuel cars, tanks and planes and bomb entire countries into their “accidental” empire.
What they all have in common is that their energy source was the premier enabling factor of their geopolitical success.
Now that conventional oil & gas is running out, the question that rises is: what is going to be the successor energy, guaranteeing new geopolitical success. The EU thinks it is going to be renewable energy and the EU is the only serious geopolitical player that has set as its goal to completely ‘decarbonize’ its economy before 2050. This gives them a significant head start over their immediate geopolitical competitors China and United States.
But wait a minute… didn’t wind energy loose out after the Dutch 17th century? Not really. The difference is technology. A modern 15 MW Siemens-Gamesa wind-turbine is 500 times as powerful as the good old 30 kW Dutch wooden windmill, that took a year or longer to build, where a monopile can be rammed into the sea floor and wind tower and nacelle put in place in a matter of days. The required iron-steel are abundant and cheap.
Earlier this week the EU has committed itself to the hydrogen economy, to be achieved before 2050. It is the only major geopolitical player so far to do so, although it can be expected that other major parties will follow later. But the three examples above, the Dutch, British and American ones, have shown that early adoption of a new energy source will have positive implications for future geopolitical success. That’s why we are upbeat about the prospects of European civilization at the End of the American Era.
[nl.wikipedia.org] – Gevlucht
[nl.wikipedia.org] – Philips Koninck
[wikipedia.org] – Dutch Golden Age
[wikipedia.org] – Dutch East India Company
[wikipedia.org] – Energy policy of the European Union
[amazon.com] – The End of the American Era
[deepresource] – EU Intends to Aim at 80-120 GW Renewable Hydrogen Capacity
[source] Owning the reserve currency is a good indicator for geopolitical status and power. In the 17th century it was the Dutch empire, in the 19th the British and in the 20th century the American empire that represented the premier addresses on the planet. What is seldom realized is the important role of energy behind the imperial success. But then again, historians are no engineers.