Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable Society: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Energy in the United States: 1635-2000
Energy is essential to life. Living creatures draw on energy flowing through the environment and convert it to forms they can use. The most fundamental energy flow for living creatures is the energy of sunlight, and the most important conversion is the act of biological primary production, in which plants and sea-dwelling phytoplankton convert sunlight into biomass by photosynthesis. The Earth's web of life, including human beings, rests on this foundation. Over millennia, humans have found ways to extend and expand their energy harvest, first by harnessing draft animals and later by inventing machines to tap the power of wind and water. Industrialization, the watershed social and economic development of the modern world, was enabled by the widespread and intensive use of fossil fuels. This development freed human society from the limitations of natural energy flows by unlocking the Earth's vast stores of coal, oil, and natural gas. Tapping these ancient, concentrated deposits of solar energy enormously multiplied the rate at which energy could be poured into the human economy.
The result was one of the most profound social transformations in history. The new river of energy wrought astonishing changes and did so with unprecedented speed. The energy transformations experienced by traditional societies —from human labor alone to animal muscle power and later windmills and watermills— were very slow, and their consequences were equally slow to take effect. In contrast, industrialization and its associated socioeconomic changes took place in the space of a few generations.
The history of energy use in the United States reflects these general themes. Wood energy, for example, has been a significant part of the U.S. energy mix since colonial times (Figure 1). In fact, fuelwood was overwhelmingly the dominant energy source from the founding of the earliest colonies until late in the last century. But thereafter, the modern era is notable for the accelerated appearance of new sources of energy, in contrast to the imperceptible pace of change in earlier times. Coal ended the long dominance of fuelwood in the United States about 1885, only itself to be surpassed in 1951 by petroleum and then by natural gas a few years later. Hydroelectric power and nuclear electric power appeared about 1890 and 1957, respectively. Solar photovoltaic, advanced solar thermal, and geothermal technologies represent further recent developments in energy sources. The most striking of these entrances, however, is that of petroleum and natural gas. The curves depicting their consumption remain shallow for several decades following the success of Edwin Drake's drilling rig in 1859, but begin to rise more steeply in the 1920s. Then, interrupted only by the Depression, the curves climb at increasingly alpine angles until 1973. Annual consumption of petroleum and natural gas exceeded that of coal in 1947 and then quadrupled in a single generation. Neither before nor since has any source of energy become so dominant so quickly.
Figure 1. Energy Consumption by Source, 1635-2000
As fossil fuels and the machines that ran on them proliferated, the nature of work itself was transformed along with the fundamental social, political, and geopolitical circumstances of the Nation. In the middle of the 19th century, most Americans lived in the countryside and worked on farms. The country ran mainly on wood fuel and was relatively unimportant in global affairs. A hundred years later, after the Nation had become the world's largest producer and consumer of fossil fuels, most Americans were city-dwellers and only a relative handful were agricultural workers. The United States had roughly tripled its per-capita consumption of energy and become a global superpower.
Although coal, oil, and natural gas are the world's most important energy sources, their dominance does not extend to all corners of the globe. In most places and times diversity and evolution in energy supplies has been the rule. In many areas muscle power and biomass energy remain indispensable or even primary. The shifting emphasis over time is clear not only in the long sweep of history but also in the short term, especially in the industrialized world. Electricity, for example, was essentially unavailable until the 1880s; now it is ubiquitous. And in the span of a few decades nuclear electric power in the United States was born, peaked, and began to decline in its contribution to total energy production. No doubt we have not seen the end of evolution in energy sources.
The paragraphs that follow briefly discuss the major energy sources now in use in the United States, including a bit of history, trends, and snapshots of consumption and production patterns as of 2000. The story they tell is one of diversity and transformation, driven by chance, the play of economic forces, and human ingenuity. Whatever energy future awaits us, that part of the story seems unlikely to change.
The United States has always been a resource-rich nation, but in 1776, the year the Nation declared its independence from Great Britain, nearly all energy was still supplied by muscle power and fuelwood. America's vast deposits of coal and petroleum lay untapped and mostly undiscovered, although small amounts of coal were used to make coke, vital for casting the cannon that helped win the war. Mills made use of waterpower, and of course the wind enabled transport by ship. Fuelwood use continued to expand in parallel with the Nation's economic growth, but chronic shortages of energy in general encouraged the search for other sources.
During the first 30 years or so of the 19th century, coal began to be used in blast furnaces and in making coal-gas for illumination. Natural gas also found limited application in lighting during the period. Even electricity sought a niche; for example, experiments were conducted with battery-powered electric trains in the 1840s and 1850s. Still, muscle power remained an important source of energy for decades. Although a number of mechanical innovations appeared, including the cotton gin and the mechanical reaper, they had the effect of multiplying the productivity of human and animal muscle power rather than spurring the development of machine power. It was not until well after mid-century that the total work output from all types of engines exceeded that of work animals. The westward expansion helped change that. As railroads drove west to the plains and the mountains, they left behind the fuelwood so abundant along the eastern seaboard.
Coal became more attractive, both because deposits were often found near the new railroad rights of way and because its higher energy content increased the range and load of steam trains. Demand for coal also rose because the railroads were laying thousands of miles of new track and the metals industry needed an economical source of coke to make iron and steel for the rails and spikes. The transportation and industrial sectors in general began to grow rapidly during the latter half of the century, and coal helped fuel their growth.
Petroleum got its start as an illuminant and ingredient in patent medicines and did not catch on as a fuel for some time. At the end of World War I, coal still accounted for about 75 percent of U.S. total energy use. About the same time, the horse and mule population reached 26 million and then went into permanent decline. The beginning of the transition from muscle power was over. America's appetite for energy as it industrialized was prodigious, roughly quadrupling between 1880 and 1918. Coal fed much of this growth, while electricity expanded in applications and total use alike. Petroleum got major boosts with the discovery of Texas's vast Spindletop Oil Field in 1901 and with the advent of mass-produced automobiles, several million of which had been built by 1918.
In the years after World War
II, "Old King Coal" relinquished its place as the premier fuel in the United
States. The railroads lost business to trucks that ran on gasoline and diesel
fuel, and also began switching to diesel locomotives themselves. Labor troubles
and safety standards drove up coal production costs.
Figure 2. Energy Production by Source for 2000
Figure 3. Energy Overview
Figure 4. Energy Overview, 2000
Figure 5. Petroleum Imports, 1960-2000
Nevertheless, a growing population and economy drove total energy use up. As the U.S. population expanded from 149 million people in 1949 to 281 million in 2000 (an increase of 89 percent), total energy consumption grew from 32 quadrillion Btu to 98 quadrillion Btu (up 208 percent). Per-capita energy consumption rose 63 percent, from 215 million Btu in 1949 to 350 million Btu in 2000. Energy plays a central role in the operation of the industrialized U.S. economy, and energy spending is commensurately large. In recent years, American consumers have spent over half a trillion dollars a year on energy. That energy is consumed in four broad sectors: residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation. Industry is historically the largest consuming sector of the economy. In contrast to the relatively smooth trends in the other sectors, industrial energy use has fluctuated sharply (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Energy Consumption by End Use
Figure 7. Residential and Commercial Energy
1Energy lost during generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity
Information Administration (EIA) first collected household survey data on
personal computers in 1990, when 16 percent of households owned one or more. By
1997 that share had more than doubled to 35 percent.
U.S. home heating also
underwent a big change. Over a third of all U.S. housing units were warmed by
coal in 1950, but by 1999 that share was only 0.2 percent. Distillate fuel oil
lost more than half its share of the home-heating market during the same period,
falling from 22 percent to 10 percent. Natural gas and electricity gained as
home-heating sources: the share of natural gas rose from about a quarter of all
homes to over half, while electricity's share shot up from only 0.6 percent in
1950 to 30 percent in 1999.
Figure 8. Industrial Energy Consumption
Figure 9. Transportation Energy Consumption
Figure 10. Motor Vehicle Indicators
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