Changing energy needs, varying availability of energy sources and technological advancement have driven shifts in how the United States got its energy throughout its history. And that’s something that’s still changing in a big way. Here’s a very brief history of the most important energy sources in the United States’ history.
In the 1700s, before the Industrial Revolution, we didn’t use nearly as much energy as we do today. People burned wood, a renewable fuel source in the category of biofuel, to heat their homes and power equipment.
People also used animal power to operate equipment on farms, transport themselves and accomplish many other tasks. At this time, early hydro and wind technologies also played a role in running simple machines that helped process food and transport water.
In the 1800s, coal became more common. It burned longer and hotter than wood and was easier to transport. People began to use coal to power steam engines, and, in 1880, a coal-powered steam engine was used to run the world’s earliest electric generator.
Coal continued to be used for electricity generation, and its popularity continued to increase until the mid-1900s, when oil and natural gas were introduced. As overall energy use continued to climb, coal production did as well. Today, it makes up about 30 percent of the U.S.’ energy mix.
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Oil and Natural Gas
As drilling technology improved, the price of petroleum-based fuels, such as oil and natural gas, declined. This led to these energy sources eventually overtaking coal as the primary fuel in the mid-1900s.
The growth of oil and natural gas continued until political issues caused Arab oil-producing nations to stop supplying oil to Western nations. This, as well as economic issues, caused oil and natural gas prices to rise dramatically. The market recovered in the late 1970s, and suffered another setback during the financial crisis of 2008, but increased supply due to shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing kept the market strong.
Today, natural gas is the primary source of energy in the United States.
Nuclear came onto the scene in the 1950s, and nuclear generation began to increase significantly. However, several nuclear accidents in the 1970s and 1980s caused the nuclear industry to lose favor.
Today, nuclear still makes up a considerable portion, about 20 percent, of U.S. electricity generation. Many nuclear plants have been closed recently, however, as the debate continues over whether the safety risks and issues caused by nuclear waste are worth the reliable, emissions-free energy nuclear offers.
Although renewable energy sources have been around for a long time in the form of hydro, wind and biomass, they have begun to play a much bigger role recently due to their environmental attributes. Renewable energy use has grown by nearly 15.9 percent since 1995.
Hydropower remains the most commonly used renewable energy source, but wind and solar have seen huge growth in recent years. Large wind farms have made the resource the second most common renewable energy source, while both rooftop and utility-scale solar have become increasingly popular.
The Energy of the Future
As energy use in the U.S. continues to change, renewable energy technology will improve and be used more frequently. Energy storage, through the use of batteries and other technologies, will also play a more important role.
The oil and natural gas industry is also continuing to innovate new ways to extract more from the ground and, along with the coal industry, find ways to make the fuels more environmentally friendly. Technologies for capturing emissions and recycling byproducts continue to be developed.
As energy needs, technology, public policy and more continue to evolve, so will America’s energy industry. The history of energy in the U.S. is far from over.