A variety of energy resources
Western society exploits a wide variety of energy resources such as coal, gas and oil to do useful jobs including heating and lighting your home. Historically people exploited fewer energy resources, and often these resources were less concentrated, meaning that people needed to do more hard work to keep warm and comfortable. An example of this is the development from burning wood to burning coal. Burning coal can shift more energy per kilogram than burning wood, so with coal you do not need to spend so much time collecting the fuel.
These days, power stations are the main places where we shift energy for public consumption, using resources such as coal and gas that have easily depleted chemical stores of energy (see episode 01). The technologies that enable this shifting of energy from one store to another have become more sophisticated, allowing much more of the store to be depleted (for example by ensuring complete combustion of coal) and also channelling more of the energy into the target store. Not that this is how the inventors talked of such things: the concept of energy is quite recent, only acquiring prominence in its modern form around 1850. From the power station, electrical connections (via the national grid) then allow the energy to be shifted between stores, well away from the station, to achieve the job we want it to do. This is how most of the useful output of the power station is harnessed.
Not so long ago, warming your house involved moving the coal from the pit into the house, and then burning it. Now it can be burnt in one place, and the results enjoyed elsewhere. However, even in a well designed power station, not all of the energy makes it out via the electrical circuit: some is dissipated locally in thermal stores, warming up the surroundings. One way to make use of this is to warm houses or other working areas close to the power station.
One difficulty with the
greener resources such as solar or wind power is that the technologies are less developed and there is the problem of shifting significant quantities of energy from these resources. For example, both solar power stations and wind turbines require large areas of the Earth's surface to provide the same output as even a moderately sized fossil fuel powered station.