Use this timeline to explore how humans have relied on fossil fuels in the past and how we are looking for, and using, new energy sources.
200,000 BC – Fire used
Records of the first controlled uses of fire for warmth and cooking.
500 BC – Solar power
Passive solar energy used in Greek homes.
200 BC – Coal mining
Coal mining starts in China.
644 AD – First windmill
The first windmill, with a vertical axis, is recorded in Iran.
1100 – Wind power
Windmills are introduced in Europe.
1690 – Coal replaces wood
Widespread use of coal begins in Europe due to wood depletion.
1700 – Geothermal power
Māori use geothermal hot water and coal for cooking and heating.
1848 Coal discovered in New Zealand
New Zealand coal is discovered by Thomas Brunner on the West Coast of the South Island.
1859 – First US oil well
First oil well in America is drilled in Pennsylvania.
1868 – First solar power plant
First modern solar power plant in Algiers used to heat water to drive a steam engine.
1885 – Petrol powered car
Karl Benz develops the first working motorcar powered by petrol.
1886 – Oil discovered in New Zealand
New Zealand oil is discovered in Taranaki, in the North Island of New Zealand.
1892 – First hydroelectric power station in New Zealand
First hydroelectric power station in New Zealand is built at Mokopeka.
1933 – First hydroelectric power station in the South Island
First hydroelectric power station scheme in operation on the Kawerau River in the South Island.
1939 – Nuclear power
Otto Hahn, in Germany, discovers the process of nuclear fission for energy.
1942 – First nuclear fission reactor
Enrico Fermi, working in the United States, designs and builds the first nuclear fission reactor.
1945 – First atomic bomb
First atomic bomb detonated in New Mexico, USA.
1951 – First nuclear electrical power
First nuclear electrical power produced in Idaho, USA.
1958 – First geothermal power plant in New Zealand
New Zealand’s first geothermal power plant, in Wairakei in the North Island, produces electricity.
1962 – First gas well in New Zealand
New Zealand’s first gas well drilled in Taranaki, North Island.
1973 – Energy shortages
Worldwide energy shortages are caused by the oil embargo of key oil-producing countries.
1974 – Photovoltaic cell developed
Silicon photovoltaic cell for harnessing solar power is developed by Joseph Lindmayer in the USA.
1985 – New Zealand’s nuclear ban
The New Zealand anti-nuclear policy is enforced over a visit by the USS warship Buchanan.
1986 – Worst nuclear meltdown
Worst nuclear meltdown with nuclear fallout occurs at Chernobyl, Ukraine.
1993 – First wind turbine in New Zealand
The first commercial wind turbine in New Zealand is installed in Brooklyn, Wellington. More wind farms follow.
2003 – World’s biggest power cut
The world’s biggest power cut affects more than 50 million people when a fault in a power company in Canada causes a black-out across the eastern USA and Canada.
2016 – Year high
New Zealand generates 85% of electricity from renrewable sources.
2017 – Damaged pipeline causes fuel shortages
The 168 km pipeline, which carries jet fuel, diesel and petrol directly from the refinery at Marsden Point to tanks in South Auckland, is damaged by a digger. Air travel is disrupted and some Auckland petrol stations run out of petrol.
Find out more about the development of electric vehicles in the Electric car history timeline.