Coastside author Richard Rhodes will be sharing insights from his new book, “Energy: A Human History,” in a free presentation at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Half Moon Bay Odd Fellows Hall, 526 Main St. The book is an overview of energy transition across the last 400 years, told through biographical sketches of the innovators who tried to change the way the world uses natural resources.

His book opens with a tale from England in the late 1500s, and the clandestine removal of an entire building spurred by a dispute in ownership and a resource shortage. The building was a theater built on leased land. When the lease expired, the landlord claimed ownership of the building as well, but the true owner, an actor and business associate of William Shakespeare, disagreed. 

On Dec. 28, 1598, under the cover of darkness and protected by armed men, the actors and their friends dismantled the building beam by beam and transported it to a waterfront warehouse, where it was eventually used to build the famous Globe Theatre.

At the time, wood was the primary energy source in England, and Rhodes said that the bitter dispute over the structure was in large part due to a severe wood shortage. The lack of wood eventually led to the adoption of coal.

It is a pattern repeated again and again throughout history, he says. As one energy resource is depleted, it becomes more difficult and expensive to get, triggering a transition to a new form of energy. 

Those transitions, however, are not always embraced by society.

“The hardest problem and the reason it takes so long is that people have to be reeducated,” said Rhodes. 

For example, he says that the transition to coal was hampered by superstition. At the time, a lot of Elizabethan preachers didn’t understand what coal was. They just knew it came from deep in the earth, was flammable and smelled of sulfur. 

“They concluded that coal was the devil’s excrement,” said Rhodes. “This didn’t help with people’s need to move from wood to coal.”

There are also economic factors that hamper the adoption of a new energy source. People and organizations that have heavily invested in infrastructure for the current energy source stand to lose a lot of money with a transition.

“The people who have invested, often their investment becomes a sunk cost,” said Rhodes.

Because of this economic and social resistance, it can take a long time for civilization to transition from one form of energy to another. Historically, it has taken about 100 years for a new energy source to penetrate 50 percent of the market. Rhodes said that, in the current case of climate change, civilization may not have time to make the needed adjustment.

“Renewables haven’t even penetrated 10 percent of the market yet,” he said. “Today, even if we went the route of all renewables, it’s not going to happen in time.”

In 2015, the Washington Post ran an article about Bandar Mahshahr, Iran, where the air temperature of 115 degrees and a dew point of 90 resulted in a heat index — a measure of what the air feels like — of 165 degrees. This is literally off the charts, as the index is only designed to compute values up to about 136 degrees.

Rhodes noted that 165 degrees is the ideal internal temperature for cooked turkey. “That’s where we are going,” he said. “The fundamental question is, are we going to be able to make the transition to a new form of energy before we all become cooked turkeys?”

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