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
(Quadrillion Btu)
Figure 1. Energy Consumption by Source, 1635-2000
As for the social, economic, and ecological consequences of evolving energy sources, they are too deep and numerous to do more than give suggestive examples. One of the most significant is the shift between muscle- and machine power. Horses, mules, and other draft animals were invaluable prime movers well into the first half of the 20th century, and despite increasing reliance on fossil fuels and the engines they powered, the number of draft animals in the United States continued to rise until about 1920. As late as 1870, draft animals accounted for more than half of the total horsepower of all prime movers. Their displacement by fossil-fuel engines meant, eventually, the disappearance from city and farm alike of millions of animals, along with the vast stables that housed the city-based animals, the mountains of dung they left on city streets, and many of the English sparrows that fed on the grain therein.
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.

Obtained from