Energy Sources: History, Selection, and Transitions


When hominids first used fire, perhaps 250,000 years ago (1), they began on a long and complicated path of discovery and innovation. The search for more efficient sources of energy continues today. Our basic energy needs have not changed—heat, light, manufacturing, and transportation—but we now have many ways to fulfill these needs and those of modern society such as telecommunications. Humankind has passed through many stages in the development of energy sources.

From the beginning, fire was essential and fuels included wood, charcoal, peat, straw, dried dung, and animal oil. Homes were oriented with respect to the sun and wind for heating, cooling, and light. The muscle power of humans and draft animals was used for hunting, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. Development of effective harnesses increased the power of draft animals. One animal could typically do the work of three to five workers. Improved animal breeding and nutrition increased this ratio to as much as one animal for 15 workers (2). Human-powered paddlewheels for irrigation were used throughout Asia. The benefits of crop irrigation at critical growing stages were huge. Irrigated fields could produce up to 30 times more food energy than what was consumed by the people providing the energy to move the water (2).

A major development in the history of energy use was the harnessing of water and wind power for transportation. Evidence of the use of boats goes back as far as 60,000 years ago (3), and wind power was used to move sailboats as early as 3500 B.C. The ancient Romans, Chinese, and Indians used square sails on their ships, while the Arabs used a more efficient triangular design, which was eventually adopted in Western Europe. Sailing ships continued to be a primary means of transportation until they were replaced by steam-powered ships in the 1800s.

Wind and water were also harnessed to run windmills and waterwheels. Windmills for grinding grain were used in Persia starting in 640 A.D. and were later developed for pumping water. The earliest vertical water wheel was developed in Greece in about 200 B.C. Waterwheels were used for grinding grain and pumping water for irrigation, and dams were built to store water and to increase water pressure. People settled in towns at the best locations along the rivers. The invention of the camshaft and crankshaft allowed for use of the waterwheel in sawmills and iron foundries, eventually leading to the large cotton mills built in Europe and the U.S. in the mid-1800s (4).

As wood became scarce in Europe in the 1600s, more coal was mined and at deeper depths. To pump water out of the mines, Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen developed the first steam engines in the early 1700s. These engines could run on coal and did not need to be powered by wind or water. James Watt improved the efficiency of these engines over several years, from 1763 to 1775 (5). This new source of mechanical power began the Industrial Revolution, "one of the most profound social transformations in history" (6). Interestingly, James Watt felt that high-pressure steam was dangerous and discouraged the used of coal-powered steam engines for transportation. His patent on the engine prevented new innovations until 1800, when the patent expired (2). The steam engine was soon adapted for use in factories, riverboats, ships, and railroads (4). People found these engines to be more convenient and reliable and less expensive than using water, wind, and horses. Improvements in their design increased performance dramatically. By 1900, steam engines were up to 30 times more powerful and 10 times more efficient than those designed in 1800 (2). In the U.S., wood was used as well as coal, especially in the West, but the demand for coal across the country quadrupled between 1880 and 1918 (Figure 1). Large amounts of coal were needed in the production of iron and steel as well as in the railroad industry.


Figure 1. Energy consumption in the United States by source (quadrillion Btu).


Engines small enough for road vehicles were not designed until the early 1900s, when new fuels refined from crude oil became available. Kerosene was first distilled from oil in 1853 and was used in lamps, replacing whale oil. It was for this use that exploration for oil began (2), starting with the first modern oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859. Further development of the industry around the turn of the century resulted in wells in Romania, the U.S., Sumatra, Mexico, Iran, and other countries. A network of oil pipelines was developed in the U.S. in the 1880s. The internal combustion engine, with prototypes as early as 1806, was further developed by Nikolaus Otto, Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, and Rudolf Diesel (7, 2). The first automobile was designed and produced by Karl Benz by 1888, and the industry grew rapidly. Ransom E. Olds began production-line manufacturing in 1902, which was further developed by Henry Ford beginning in 1914 (8).

During this time of change, other developments in the use of energy were taking place. Building on earlier scientific discoveries, inventors such as Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Frank Sprague, George Westinghouse, and Alexander Graham Bell propelled us into a second Industrial Revolution, one powered by electricity. Starting in the 1880s, steam-turbine power plants and hydroelectric plants produced electricity using electromagnetic generators. In time, electric trolleys and electrical lights and heaters began to replace horses, kerosene, coal, and wood. The development of alternating current and the transformer allowed electricity to be transmitted more efficiently and over longer distances. Power plants could now be situated away from the end users: factories and consumers (4, 9).

Further development of hydroelectric dams and larger, more efficient plants fired by fossil fuels continued. In the U.S., the demand for electricity grew an average of 12 percent per year from 1901 to 1932 (10). In the 1930s, the federal government began to both regulate and produce electrical power, and subsidize rural electric cooperatives. From the 1930s to the 1950s, electrical lines were built throughout most of rural America (10).

The largest oil fields were discovered between 1927 and 1958 in the Persian Gulf region. The cost of power dropped as these petroleum supplies were developed in the 1940s and 1950s. As more diesel fuel was made available, the railroad industry switched to diesel locomotives. The demand for diesel for trucking and gasoline for cars also increased dramatically over this time. Natural gas pipelines were built in the U.S. starting in 1945, and natural gas was soon widely used for heating. The consumption of petroleum and natural gas exceeded that of coal in 1947, in spite of the continued availability of coal and the increased amount of coal required for electrical generation (Figure 1). Due to the high energy value and availability of imported oil, many nations moved from the use of wood directly to petroleum without using coal, in spite of the coal reserves in some of these countries (2). In the 1950s, nuclear fission was first used to generate electricity. The use of nuclear power did not proliferate as quickly as did the use of other energy sources, however, due to cost and concerns over safety and waste management (4).

Globally, fossil fuel production has increased exponentially since 1800. Coal production grew 100 times from 1810 to 1910, and five times from 1910 to 1990. Crude oil production increased 300 times from 1880 to 1990, and natural gas production increased 1,000 times over the same time period (2). In terms of the availability of useful energy, during the years from 1700 to 1850, there was 0.4 kg of oil equivalent per capita worldwide. This value increased by about 15 times to 6.0 kg of oil equivalent per capita by 2000 (2).

In the U.S., the efficiency of both energy production and energy use has improved dramatically in the last fifty years, but due to the population increase (89 percent from 1949 to 2000) and a growing economy, total energy use increased by 200 percent (6). Per capita use increased by 63 percent over this time period.

Figure 2 depicts the flow of energy in the U.S. In 2007, the four end-use sectors (residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation) consumed 101.6 quadrillion Btu. Coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants (Figure 3) produced nearly 90 percent of the 4,157 billion kWh of the electrical power generated in 2007 (Figure 4) (11). Over a trillion dollars is spent each year on energy in this country (12).

Figure 3. Electric power plants in U.S, 2009.


Figure 4. U.S. electrical power generation by source, 2007.


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