« The bright future of solar thermal powered factories | Main | Gas Bag Vehicles »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Kris De Decker



Mark Van den Borre


Wonderful article! Please do correct two inaccuracies: 440 hectares equals 4.4 km², 230 hectares equals 2.3 km².



the "Windmills are only half of the story" paragraph is some how written in a dutch view point. what about the Spanish and Portuguese sailors and their knowledge with sails????? how can you say that the Dutch and the Flemish dominated the European economy from about 1100 to 1700???? referees????

"the Dutch not only made glass, they also produced bricks, tiles, ceramics and clay pipes, they refined salt and sugar, bleached linen, boiled soap, brewed beer, distilled spirits and baked bread"???????????????????? what about the Romans??????????

it's a very good article about peat.

When are you guys write about the Chinese and Indian Low Tech???? Japanese????

please, don't resume the world to Central and Northern Europe.....

great blog, thank you for all these amazing infos.....

Best regards

Kris De Decker


@ Mark: thanks.

@ T3A: that's a lot of questions.

* Rule number one of non-fiction writing: define your subject. This article is about Europe, and deals with the second millenium AD, as noted in the introduction. Pre-industrial fossil fuel use in China alone would require another article of the same length. Let's keep that for another time.

* Low-tech Magazine has published several articles dealing with non-western low-tech. Check out our archives. And there is more to come.

* The Romans had industry too, yes. This is why they deforested almost the whole of Europe. See the first three paragraphs of the article. Again, this is another story. It will be dealt with in a forthcoming article.

* "The Dutch and the Flemish dominated the European economy"

I changed that into "Western European economy", which is indeed closer to the truth. Spain and Portugal were equally powerful, mainly by stealing the resources of other countries. However, Spain (I don't know about Portugal) never rivaled the Dutch and Flemish in terms of urbanization level and income per capita:


The unique thing about the Flemish and the Dutch is that they reached prosperity with relatively few people, which explains their high income per capita. The reason why such a small population could reach such economic power was due to their use of peat.

Also, don't forget that the Low Countries were governed by Spain at that time. The reason that Antwerp became so rich was because it benefited most from the Spanish trade with the Americas. After a while, it started to bother the Spanish that they were making the Flemish rich, and during the 16th century they tried to move the economic power to the South, going as far as sacking Antwerp in 1576. This resulted in the Dutch revolt and the declaration of independence by the Northern Netherlands in 1572. Spain and the Northern Netherlands remained at war until 1648.

References? See the references listed at the bottom of the article.

Mark H


I don't suppose anyone has ever tried to make peat and maybe make it quicker and more efficiently than occurs in nature?



Great article,

However, I do have issues with the reference to solar power. A modern solar power plant can generate on the order of 4W per square meter. If an area equal to the 2835 square kilometers that were stripped of peat would be covered with photovoltaics, you would get an average of about 11 GW of electricity - this is less than the Netherlands need and it is still subject to the limitations of solar power, namely very limited availability and storage.

But if the area stripped of peat was already seen as excessive or at least very problematic - would not the same be true for areas lost to solar power? Solar power plants are not especially sightly or environmentally friendly (and don't get me started on the conditions under which a lot of the currently deployed solar cells are produced in China), even though this fact tends to get lost in the current bravado.

(Both average about 6MW - the former has an area of 1.6sqkm the latter almost 2sqkm)

Kris De Decker


@ tp1024: the article refers to solar thermal energy, not PV solar panels. Using PV solar panels to produce heat energy is a very inefficient process and should be avoided for all the reasons you mention.

Kris De Decker


I made some minor corrections following the comments at Energy Bulletin

* "Producing a kg of glass required more than 4 tonnes of wood (90 MJ/kg)".

This must be wrong. My reference for this information ("Energy transitions: history, requirements, prospects", Vaclac Smil, page 27) says 2.4 tonnes, not 4.2 tonnes. But even then, this cannot be equal to only 90 MJ/kg. I took the whole sentence out. And the reference was not listed with the other sources, which is rectified.

* "The printing press appeared in 1140".

Not really, it appeared 300 years later. Nevertheless, they were already "inventing" it during the 12th century:


* 115 to 230 hectares equals 1.15 to 2.3 km2, not 11 to 23 km2

* 6 billion people should be 7 billion people.



It's true. That's changing the argument significantly.

But this is one of the rare cases in which, by coincidence, changing the argument doesn't change the conclusion.

The factors just about cancel out and the required area to supply the Netherlands with solar heat is quite comparable to the example I gave - since European countries use roughly twice as much heat energy as electricity, straight use of thermal energy is about three times as efficient and the example I gave only accounts for about two thirds of the electricity used in the Netherlands.

Of course, this is not an argument against solar-thermal per se. It's just that the amount of energy it can supply could be quite limited (though not insignificant!), if the environmental impact is not supposed to be excessive. And of course it is a direct competitor with photovoltaics in terms of the acceptable limit of occupied area.



Fantastic article and blog. I hope looking back and seeing the folly of our decision-making should inspire some good critical thinking.

The history of technology is really critical in understanding why we are where we are, and I applaud your efforts in understanding this via this blog. I'm curious if, through your research, you are thinking of assembling a list of "superstar renewable technologies across the ages".

Maybe a community across the web could form to look into discussing and implementing these things today. And maybe they could inform efforts such as Open Source Ecology. What do you think?

Kris De Decker



Thank you, and I think that's a very good idea. However, it might come a bit too early. Looking at my list of ideas for articles, it seems that I am still scratching the surface of the history of technology. And I am (we are) still learning. This article on peat, for instance, sheds a very different light on the article on windmills I wrote two years ago.

Take this quote from the 2009 article: "More than 900 years ago, medieval Europe became the first large civilisation not to be run by human muscle power. Thousands and thousands of windmills and waterwheels, backed up by animal power, transformed industry and society radically. It was an industrial revolution entirely powered by renewable energy – something that we can (and do) only dream of today."

As we know now, it wasn't a civilization entirely powered by renewable energy. Not at all. The article received hundreds of comments (mostly on The Oil Drum), but nobody pointed to the large-scale use of peat. I guess we need more historians in the blogosphere...

Björn van der Meer


Wonderful article as always!

I have some trouble with the dutch geography (German, despite my name!), a simple map with the major cities and county names would be a great addition.

Is this paragraph correct then? I think the first "South" should be "North"?

"The seven provinces in the South revolted against the Spanish and formed a new state, the Dutch Republic (the present-day Netherlands). As a result of the subsequent chaos in the Southern provinces (present-day Belgium), the city of Antwerp lost its leading role and power shifted rapidly to the Dutch province of Holland, where the capital of Amsterdam now became the European centre of economic and industrial activity."

Again, thank you for your work, best wishes, Björn

Kris De Decker


Björn, thanks for the correction. Indeed, South should be North.

I will see if I can find some space for a good map of the Low Countries.



"A modern solar power plant can generate on the order of 4W per square meter."

40W seems more accurate.

Simon L


The whole Non-Romanic part of the Low Countries revolted, not just the Northern part (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Act_of_Abjuration). The border between Holland and Flanders still is the determined by what territory the Spanish and Dutch troops coincidentally occupied at the time of the treaty.

Crispin In Waterloo


"A modern solar power plant can generate on the order of 4W per square meter."

Depending on the cell type and packing, 100 to 200 W/m^2.

I was a little surprised at the several references to 'coal being smoky'. Coal smoke is unburned, evaporated hydrocarbons. Similarly, peat smoke is evaporated volatiles from biomass. Both are combustible. If there was smoke from the combustors it was due to their poor design, not an inherent property of the fuel.

The invention in England around 1685 of the downdraft coal combustor (in the form of a "J-stove") sorted out the combustion of smoke for coal, in particularly, sulphur which was often emitted as stinky, reactive H2S instead of SO2 (reflecting poor combustion conditions). This downdraft principle was applied by Franklin in his more famous stove of 1742 which featured a cross between a downdraft and crossdraft combustor, burning the smoke very well liberating additional heat.

I haven't seen much on solid fuel combustor progress from the Low Countries, though they were very inventive with liquid fueled lanterns.

There is a Dutch museum of kerosene lanterns.

Carin Moolman


Hello Kris,
Thank you! I watched a Netflix movie called "A Noble Intention" in Dutch with English subtitles (I speak Afrikaans and thought this would help). I was curious about the peat diggers history and industry in general in the Netherlands as I knew nothing of it and Googled this industry. I then came across this article and learned so much about said energy source but all kinds of historical and energy facts. Some comments speak to certain inaccuracies but I still thought it was a brilliant article.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)