History of Energy

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This article is placed in dKospedia to overcome the tendency of policy makers to ignore the fact that our fossil fuel Energy economy is relatively recent and that the technology underpinnings of society are capable of changing rapidly when circumstances and technology drive such a change.


Ancient History

Prior to 1807, if you wanted to travel by water, your choices were sailing, rowing, or taking a barge that flowed with the current or was pulled by animals upstream. The Erie Canal completed in 1825, was one of the last major construction projects in the old paradigm. It featured barges pulled through canals by animals to connect the Hudson river to Lake Erie. If you wanted to travel overland, prior to 1825, you could walk, ride a horse, or ride in an animal or person drawn carriage or wagon.

If you wanted to heat your home, you typically used wood or charcoal, and even some coal burned directly for heating and cooking. There were isolated instances where geothermal power was used to heat homes. A few small communities in China used natural gas to desalinate water. Animal and vegatable oils and waxes were used for lamps. Hot water came from the fire under your stove. Wind power and water power was principally used to power water wells and grain mills.

Of course, commercial use of electricity, nuclear power, oil wells, widespread use of natural gas and the like were in the distant future.

The Industrial Revolution and Coal

If you wanted to date the start of the industrial revolution, 1769, when James Watt patented his refinements of the steam engine, that brought steam engines from 5% to 25% efficiency, would be as good a date as any. He also built the first steam wagon, which is arguably the first automobile, that year, but the automobile didn't become practically viable for another century plus. (Papin build the first modern working model of a steam engine in 1679, Savery built a steam engine in 1698 and Newcomen built a steam engine in 1712 that Watt would refine into something commercially viable).

We call it a “steam economy”, but the terms "steam engine", "steam boat", "steam ship" and "steam locomotive", are all code words. The industrial revolution and all of its steam powered machinery was powered by coal. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, there were coal powered trains, boats and even motor vehicles. Coal was a major fuel for heating. Coal still provides the majority of our electricity. But, since the 1950s, when the last coal power railroad engines (such as the "Big Boys") were phased out, coal has been used almost exclusively in power plants and industry.

The steam powered train prevailed for about a century and a half from 1804, when the first steam locomotive was built in Wales (although commercial steam train service wasn't in place until 1825), until the 1950s when the last steam locomotives were starting to be phased out by diesel and diesel-electric models. Today, coal powered trains are used commercially only in China, although steam trains are still operated as historic tourist destinations in a number of locations.

The steam powered riverboat dates to 1807 when Fulton began operating one on the rivers of the United States. The first steam ship to cross the Atlantic did so in 1819, with regular commercial service starting in 1838. The Queen Elizabeth passenger liner built in 1938 was the largest steam ship ever built. The last major steam ship ever built was the Queen Elizabeth 2 cruise liner in 1968, which was converted to diesel in 1986.

By the early 20th century, radiators powered by coal or oil fired boilers brought heat to most homes. Many older homes have coal chutes that reflect this period in our technological history. (This also coincided with the "ice boxes" which were common before electricity and related technologies made home refrigerators common).

In its early days, coal produced massive amounts of soot that covered everything. Victorian era glass covered bookshelves, for example, were built so that you didn't have to dust the books daily to remove the coal dust. Modern coal plants are cleaner, but still produce large amounts of waste. Today's heavily coal dependent China experiences many of the soot problems common in the pre-environmental regulation coal fuel era in the Western world.

Peak coal is nowhere near. We have a 300 year supply of coal at current use rates with current technologies. In fact, the coal supply would almost certainly last longer than that at that useage rate, because technology will almost certainly advance over the next 300 years making more coal available for consumption. But, oil has proved easier to use for transportation applications, and natural gas burns cleaner and can be brought to homes by inexpensive pipelines.

Diesel and Gasoline

The first commercial oil well was built in Petrolia, Canada in 1858, which was the leading producer of mineral based oil in the world until 1901 when oil was found in Texas. But, oil did not see widespread comercial use until the early 20th century when the internal combustion engine in the automobile became widespread.

In the late 19th century, ethanol (starting in the 1890s) and electric cars were developed. But, prohibition in the United States in 1919 wiped out the ethanol industry, and efforts to create an automotive industry in Britain were stimied until 1896 by the "red flag law" which prevented vehicles from operating unless someone on foot with a red flag and noisemaker announced the coming of the motor vehicle.

In 1886 gasoline powered internal combustion engines were developed. The first gasoline powered automobile in mass production, the Oldsmobile, dates to 1902. A decade later, beginning with the rise of Ford's Model T and subsequent models, gasoline and to a lesser extent diesel became the dominant fuel for automobiles.

The Wright Brothers flew the first heavier than air airplane in 1903. Heavier than air flight was based on petroleum based fuels from the beginning. Marine diesel engines began around 1912 and only a handful of steam ships were built after 1960. Diesel locomotives for trains became common starting in the 1920s, and had virtually completely replaced the steam engine by the 1960s. Most trains now operate with either hybrid diesel-electric engines or with electricity from a third rail or overhead electrical source.

Heating oil was once a major means of heating homes, but now this is restricted largely to the Northeast, Alaska and Hawaii. Heating oil continues to decline in popularity in the Northeast. Natural gas and electricity are the dominant home heating methods today and this has been increasingly the case since at least the 1950s.

Gasoline is the dominant fuel for household and light commercial vehicles in the United States, although all tolerate some ethanol and a large part of the European market is diesel based. Diesel is the dominant fuel for military vehicles, trucks, trains, boats, and ships in the United States. Virtually all aircraft run on some oil based fuel (most jet fuel is a form of kerosene). A few trucks and buses run on alternative fuels (such as natural gas), a few urban and high speed trains are electrically based, and a few aircraft carriers and submarines are powered by nuclear rather than fossil fuels.

Gasoline has slightly higher energy density than diesel and emits fewer particulates and NOx pollutants, but gets lower mileage. (Gasoline engines use less compression and an electric starter, while diesel engines use greater compression eliminating the need for an electric starter and thus simplying the engine). Tax incentives in Europe favor diesel and modern diesel engines are cleaner than their predecessors, while regulations to eliminate sulfur from diesel fuel will make it possible to use more effective exhaust cleaning technologies for diesel vehicles. The United States was just on the verge as of 2005 of taking similar steps to remove sulfur from diesel fuels.

Some put the time period until Peak Oil at 40 years. Others are more optimistic (in part as a result of grossly incorrect predictions of early peak oil dates made in the 1970s during the energy crisis). But, almost all industry analysts do see a long term trend towards more expensive petroleum products, as demand rises with world economic development, and the cheapest supply sources are exhausted. There are few places in the world where major new oil supplies could be discovered.

Natural Gas

Natural gas was first used for illumination, primarily in gas street lights, in 1785 in Britain and in 1816 in the United States. The first natural gas well was built in 1821 in Fredonia, New York, and, in 1859, natural gas was first produced in the United States on an industrial basis. Natural gas was used almost exclusively for illumination through the late 19th century. The Bunsen Burner (which allowed natural gas to be used for water heating and cooking purposes) was invented in 1885, and the first major pipeline was built in 1891. A significant pipeline industry began in the 1920s. More reliable pipelines were constructed from 1945 to the 1960s. These pipelines made home heating, water heating, cooking and other modern uses of natural gas possible. Prior to development of these uses of natural gas, it was simply flared from oil wells. Flaring remains common today in areas where a lack of pipelines makes natural gas unprofitable, but for environmental and long term economic reasons, pumping natural gas back into oil wells is the preferred practice.

Limited efforts have been made since the 1970s to explore natural gas as a vehicle fuel, but concerns about the fact that natural gas is not renewable, and technological and infrastructure challenges, have held back this kind of development outside isolate fleet vehicle uses. Those vehicles in service which do use natural gas perform similarly to conventional vehicles and are less polluting than gasoline or diesel powered vehicles.

Peak natural gas is expected to come later than Peak Oil by at least a decade, but again, there are widespread disagreements over how much natural gas is left. Industry sources generally claim the proven reserves of natural gas account for less than 10% of the actual commercially exploitable supply.

Water Heating

Prior to the 1920s, home water heating was pretty much confined to boiling water over a coal or wood fire. Some parts of the world developed public baths (e.g. in Rome, Greece, Turkey and Bath, England) around either natural hot springs, or elaborate coal or wood based water heating systems. The 1920s brought dedicated coal fired water heaters and water heaters integrated with a kitchen stove. Natural gas and electricity are now the dominant means of powering home water heaters.


While scientists were starting to understand electricity around 1800, the first commercially viable use of electricity came when Edison invented electric lighting in 1878, as a replacement to gas powered lamps. In 1880, the Edison electric company started to electrify buildings in New York City (for lighting only). By 1886, electric fans, as well as electric lighting was made possible. The Edison plan was based on direct current. Around the same time, early automobile makers were tinkering with electric cars (but the gasoline and diesel powered internal combustion engines quickly eliminated this development for the next century).

The first alternating current plant was developed by Tesla in Telluride, Colorado in 1891. This was followed by a similar AC power plant opened by Niagara Power in 1895 which provided power for industrial aluminum works in Buffalo, New York in 1895. In 1907 about 8% of dwellings had electricity (overwhelmingly in urban areas). By 1932, about 80% of urban homes and about 11% of farm homes (about 67% overall) had electricity. By 1941 the work of the New Deal rural electrification administration had brought electricity to about 35% of farm homes. This reached about 50% in 1945 and about 80% of rural homes in 1950.

Nuclear Power

Enrico Fermi established the first controlled nuclear fission reaction on December 2, 1942 at the University of Chicago. An experimental 600 watt nuclear power plant was brought on line December 20, 1951 under the watchful eye of President Eisenhower's newly established Atomic Energy Commission. The first reasonable scale nuclear power plant was the BORAX III plant that began producing power for Arco, Idaho on July 17, 1955. The first commecial nuclear power plant operated in Shippingport, Pennsylvania from 1957 to 1982.

All 108 nuclear power plants now operating in the United States, and several which have since been shut down or converted from nuclear to conventional fuels, were ordered between 1955 and 1974. These plants now provide about 20% of the electricity in the United States. About 97 plants were contracted for and cancelled, mostly as a result of the accident at Three Mile Island and related concerns about safety and waste disposal. The fact that nuclear power plant projects have been plauged with cost overruns, in part because each one has been custom built from scatch, has also been a factor. See here for detailed historical information.

There have been about 37 nuclear powered surface ships built (the first was launched in 1959), all but three by the United States and the Soviet Union. Most have been for military purposes, although three commercial nuclear powered ships, none of which are currently in service, and a number of icebreakers, have also been built. Several dozen nuclear submarines have also been built, the first of which was completed in 1954.

Nuclear fusion has been proposed as a source of nuclear power, but while it has proven technologically feasible to use fusion in bombs and it powers the Sun, it has not yet been developed to the point of being commercially viable. An experiment which researchers had hoped would make for cheap and easy power through nuclear fusion called Cold Fusion has not been replicated, although it generated a great deal of interest when it was announced.

Renewable Energy in the Modern Era

Renewable forms of energy have by far the most ancient lineage. Biofuels are as old as the intentional use of fire by humanity by our pre-Home Sapiens ancestors. Wind power and water power were used before electricity, steam engines and internal combustrial engines were invented. Geothermal power from hot springs has been used to provide baths from Rome to Glenwood Canyon, Colorado to New Zealand for millenia. But, modern interest in renewable energy took new urgency after the Energy Crisis that the United States experienced in the 1970s as a result of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries oil embargo established as a response to concerns held by Arab Countries over policies relating to Israel.

Renewable sources of energy for transportation are now largely limited to recreational sailboats and bicycles, in addition to electrically powered vehicles powered by renewable source electricity, although increased use of wind to make ships more fuel efficient is under renewed investigation.

Renewable energy sources other than conventional hydroelectric power plants generated about 2.2% of the electricity produced in the United States in 2004. [1] This includes wood, black liquor, other wood waste, municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, tires, agriculture byproducts, other biomass, geothermal, solar thermal, photovoltaic energy, and wind. Biomass (including wood), geothermal, wind and solar, in that order, are the primary sources of renewable energy based power generation other than hydroelectric power.

Hydroelectric Power

The first commercial electrical power stations were hydroelectric. A pilot project was in place as early as 1880, and it was being used to power street lights in Niagra Falls in 1881. By 1886 there were 45 hydroelectric power plants in the United States and Canada. By 1907, it provided 15% of U.S. electricity, by 1920 it provided 25%, and by 1940 it provided 40%. Hydroelectric power capacity tripled between 1920 and 1940, and tripled again between 1940 and 1980. Hydroelectric power remains an important source of elecricity which provides about 7.8% of U.S. Net Electricity Generation in 2006 as of September. [2] Locally, in many countries and U.S. States, it is a much larger share of total power generation.

The basic concept of a hydroelectric power plant has changed little since the first were designed. One important innovation, however, has been to use pumped storage hydroelectric systems as a way to store electrical energy.

In a pumped storage system, a pump carries water behind a hydroelectric dam during periods of excess power generation from other sources, and then is released through the hydroelectric dam into a water storage facility at the bottom of the dam when power is needed.

The United States currently has about 18,000 megawatts of pumped storage capacity, equal to about 2% of U.S. power generation supplies. This results in a net electricity loss of about 3% of that capacity each year (and the system is less efficient than that, because it generates power only during peak demand periods, not non-stop all year). But, it remains a fairly simple, fairly efficient means of energy storage that is often considered as way to convert more fickle renewable energy sources like solar and wind power into base power providing systems. According to Wikipedia:

Taking into account evaporation losses from the exposed water surface and conversion losses, approximately 70% to 85% of the electrical energy used to pump the water into the elevated reservoir can be regained. The technique is currently the most cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy.

The first use of pumped storage was in the 1890s in Italy and Switzerland. In the United States, the first hydroelectric pumped storage system in the United States was first operated by The Connecticut Light & Power Company at the Rocky River Plant in 1929. [3]


Tidal Power


Solar Energy

Solar energy comes in two forms, thermal, which generates useable either by directly heating something up, or by directly heating something up a contained gas or liquid which in turn powers a turbine used to generate electricity, and photovoltaic power, which turns light directly into electricity, generally using a semi-conductor.

The use of thermal solar power is ancient. The first solar thermal electricity power plant came on line in 1982, although engines operated by solar power without electricity date to the end of the 19th century.

The first documented discovery of photovoltaic materials was by physicist Edmund Becquerel in 1838. The photovoltaic cell was invented in 1883 by inventor Charles Fritz, who produced a solar cell with a conversion efficiency of 1-2%. The first commercially viable photovoltaic module, which had an energy convertion efficiency of around 6%, was invented in 1954 by Bell Laboratories.

In 1955, a commercial photovoltaic cell cost $1785/Watt in 1955 dollars. Prior to 1972, PVs were used primarily in satellite and spacecraft applications.

In the period from 1972-1981 (prior to U.S. Department of Energy statistics), a variety of experiemental and pilot program applications of photovoltaics in residential, commercial and municipal applications were implements, largely in isolated locations in both the Third World and the developed world.

The energy crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s, spurred by the OPEC oil embargo, produced the pro-renewable energy policies in the Carter Administration spurred research and development into PVs.

In 1982 there were 19 companies shipping 6,897 peak kilowatts of photovoltaics over the course of the year. By 1989, that had grown to 12,825 peak kilowatts a year, and solar power modules were selling for $5.14/Watt. By 1999, it had grown to 76,787 peak kilowatts a year, and solar power modules were selling for $3.62/Watt. In 2004, it had grown to 181,116 peak kilowatts per year, and solar power modules were selling for $2.93/Watt.[4]

Photovoltaic power remains in its infancy, however, even today. While photovoltaics now have well established niche uses, they are not a major source of power for, or replacement for power from the electricity grid, as of 2006. Electricity from solar power (including both solar thermal and photovoltaic electrical power) accounted for only 0.01% of net electricity generation in the United States in 2004. [5]

In 1994, there were six photovoltaic solar power plants operated by utility companies in the United States. Two thirds of the capacity was from a plant operated by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California. Three more plants were operated by Pacific Gas and Electric in California, one was operated by Austin Electric in Texas, and one was operated by Virginia Electric Power. [6]

A single 1000 megawatt power plant, a fairly typical size for a utility owned power plant, can produce on an ordinary day as much electricity as all of the photovoltaic systems sold in the United States over the past five years. In optimal locations a photovoltaic unit produces the equivalent of 1,800-2,400 peak wattage hours per year. Conventional power plants are capable of producing three times as much power if operated continually.

Source For Solar Energy Portion: Big Frog Mountain and PV Power.


Biomass and Biofuels

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