JCL Energy Journal

American Energy: A Brief History

“Taking a longer look at America’s future, there can be neither sustained growth nor more jobs unless we continue to have an assured supply of energy to run our economy.” President Ford (1976)

American Energy Through the Years

Despite what the marketing team at Dunkin Donuts tells you, the United States runs on electricity, not coffee. Currently, we are the second largest producer and consumer of electricity in the world. In fact, we consume about 20% of the world’s total electrical energy. American energy production has continually evolved since our birth. Electricity production has shifted and changed, particularly in the way we choose to produce it. Different fuels have grown and declined in popularity. Each fuel has its pros and cons, and each rose and fell based on innovations and technological advancements. With 4th of July coming up, the JCL Energy Journal took a look back through American history to celebrate the advances in American energy production throughout the years.

Organic Material

Up until the mid-19th century, the only widely-available option for creating heat (and therefore energy) was wood. Firewood was the primary source of power for most of human history, and was the source of American energy for a large part of our early days. There have been some small improvements made to the process- i.e. using compressed wood pellets instead of chopping down trees and splitting logs. The biggest developments made were centered around methods of trapping and using the heat energy. Stone chimneys and fireplaces paved the way to metal stoves. These stoves became more advanced and efficient over time. There are still homes in our country today that are heated by wood-burning systems. 

Our constant drive to continually produce more energy means that wood was a “background player” for most of our history of American energy production. In the 1970s, however, there was a brief period of time when wood as fuel became popular again due to the 1973 energy crisis. Many people believed that fossil-fuels would soon be too expensive to be practical. However, once the scare subsided, wood was once again a lesser-used alternative fuel source. Even so, burning wood or wood pellets does have some advantages. Wood is a much more renewable source of energy than petroleum or coal. In heavily forested areas it is more readily available at a lower cost. Despite that, wood as fuel for energy production has been a background fuel source since the invention of the coal-powered engine in the mid-1800s.

Coal

Coal first became widely used during the American Industrial Revolution. This marked the first major change in American energy production. By 1870, coal replaced wood in most locomotives. Coal would also replace wood in most blast furnaces by 1875. In 1882, Thomas Edison would design the first coal-powered electric generating station that would power New York City. The rest is history. By the early 1900s, the U.S. was one of the biggest producers of coal in the world.

Coal remained the largest source of U.S. energy production until the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, most American homes were still heated by coal. Through the 1960s, coal remained the main source of electricity production. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that coal was mostly replaced by natural gas in most power plants. The shift was mainly due to environmental concerns. Unfortunately, strip mining to harvest coal has severely affected the U.S. landscape in many areas. Burning coal also negatively affects the environment due to the several harmful emissions released when burning, such as mercury, sulfur, and carbon dioxide.

Petroleum

There was another reason coal began to slowly decline in the mid-1900s. A new power source in the form of petroleum was growing rapidly due to the increased use of the internal combustion engine in automobiles. Vehicles built with an internal combustion engine date back to the 1880s. However, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that automobiles became more affordable and more common. At this time, American energy was poised for another major shift. More automobiles meant that Americans needed more gasoline. Other means of electricity production began to rely more heavily on fossil fuels as well. By the 1950s, petroleum was well on the way to becoming our most-used source of energy. 

The history of petroleum production and consumption in the U.S. has been a roller-coaster. Petroleum use in the U.S. would take more than a blog article to fully explore, but you can learn more here. The 1970s-80s were especially turbulent times, peaking with the oil crisis of 1978-1980. Even today, oil prices are a prominent topic of discussion. Record-high prices are driving more and more people to look into alternative sources of energy, such as hydro and solar power.

Hydropower/Renewable Energy

Hydropower is not new to the U.S. Hydro has actually been used to produce electricity in the States as far back as 1880. Today, hydropower is responsible for about 7% of the overall U.S. electricity production. Hydro has many benefits. Primarily, it is very affordable to produce in many areas of the U.S. because we have access to large bodies of moving water. States like Washington, California, New York, and Oregon generally have much more affordable electricity available because they produce so much hydropower. As a clean source of renewable energy, expanding our existing hydropower structure would make a lot of sense for the U.S.

The other mainstream source of renewable power currently generating a lot of buzz is solar energy. Solar is growing rapidly, and is becoming more affordable for the average American. Especially in areas like the Southwest that see a lot of sun, solar is a great option for more affordable clean power. Some barriers still exist in the American energy market that prevent solar from becoming a mainstream power source. In the years to come that is likely to change.

Nuclear 

Another recent development in the history of renewable American energy was harnessing nuclear energy for power. The commercial use of nuclear power developed out of military projects. The first nuclear power plant in the U.S. was opened in May of 1958. The 1960s saw a lot of growth in nuclear power plants. By 2012, nuclear energy was responsible for about 20% of U.S. electricity production. It is the largest source of clean power by far.

Nuclear power is the center of a lot of controversy in America. Supporters of nuclear power promote the fact that it is much cleaner than fossil fuels. It is reliable and efficient, and has the potential to produce large amounts of electricity with a much lower environmental impact. However, many oppose the use of nuclear power for energy production. Primarily, nuclear power has been associated with war and destruction. There have been several scares in recent decades centered around nuclear threats from other countries. Nuclear has had a lot of pushback from fossil fuel companies as well. Nuclear power could potentially cause a huge cut in profits to the fossil fuel industry if it expands. In any case, the controversy will most likely prevent nuclear power from becoming a main source of American energy production, at least in the near future.

American Energy: Powering the Future

When we talk about the next “big shift” in American energy production, it is anyone’s guess what will happen over the next decade. Energy production is currently a very volatile and controversial topic. No matter what our next steps are, we can be sure of one thing. Americans need access to power, and we will find a way to make it, one way or another. 

General George S. Patton once said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” The spirit of American ingenuity will continue to drive change when it comes to American energy production. We must stay flexible and allow ourselves to make shifts along with new innovations. In doing so, we can continue to be a force in the global industry. As we celebrate our 246th year of independence this upcoming weekend, we can also celebrate a history of growth and innovation in the way we produce our energy.


Sources

A Selected Timeline of U.S. Energy. National Farmers Union, http://1yd7z7koz052nb8r33cfxyw5-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/images/stories/education/Materials/Energy%20Curriculum/FINAL%20History%20of%20U.S.%20Energy.pdf . Accessed 28 June 2022.

Contributors to Wikimedia projects. “Energy in the United States – Wikipedia.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 26 Oct. 2006, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_the_United_States#History.

—. “Nuclear Power in the United States – Wikipedia.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 19 Feb. 2006, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_the_United_States.

—. “Wood Fuel.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 6 Apr. 2004, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_fuel.

Desjardins, Jeff. “The Evolution of America’s Energy Supply (1776 – 2014).” Visual Capitalist, 25 Aug. 2015, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/the-evolution-of-americas-energy-supply-1776-2014/.

Goldstein, Jacob. “Two Centuries Of Energy In America, In Four Graphs.” Planet Money, NPR, 13 Apr. 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2013/04/10/176801719/two-centuries-of-energy-in-america-in-four-graphs.