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Energy is known as the “lifeblood of society ” because of the essential role it plays in sustaining life on Earth. In fact, “energetic” is how most people wish to feel every day. When it comes to energy, more is better, as history illustrates.
Putting energy’s “capacity for work” to use in solving the most basic of human needs – feeding, clothing and transporting people, as well as protecting them from enemies and the elements – has meant applying human ingenuity to the myriad of challenges posed by life itself. Over millennia, people learned to harness draft animals and to tap the resources of wind and water. Even in antiquity, they attached sails made of cloth to wooden ships, enabling them to use the power of wind to propel them over water.
Life was made easier for people on Earth by such uses of renewable energy, but life changed very little; the overall human condition remained the same for two thousand years. The world was lit only by fire; life expectancy was static; upward mobility did not exist, and life in this Hobbesian “state of nature” was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The vast majority of men used their backs to produce enough to keep their families alive. The primary role of women was to produce many children whose backs would also be used for labor…if they survived. Very few had wealth. The peasantry was vast. The world was at rest, but that was about to change.
When a Scotsman named James Watt patented the world’s first truly efficient and practical steam engine in 1769, it elevated energy’s service to mankind to a new level. His steam engine was the first of several developments that would eventually displace the horse as the primary means of moving heavy objects over land and begin to free humans from backbreaking labor. Just four decades after Watt’s breakthrough, coal-fired steam engines were powering the world’s first locomotives in England and displacing sails on ships at sea. The modern forms of commerce we enjoy today, with all of its benefits for our quality of life, find their roots in Watt’s ingenuity and the use of fossil energy.
Ironically, it was Watt who coined the term “horsepower,” which he used to describe the new unit of measure his innovation had made possible. Horsepower, as defined by Watt, was the work done when a horse lifted a 550-pound load of water or coal out of a mineshaft at a rate of one foot per second. The watt – an electrical metric used on every electrical device, is named after him.
It was no coincidence that Watt included a coal shaft in his definition of horsepower. The product of energy-laden plants that died millions of years ago and lay crushed beneath layers of dirt and water where heat and pressure did their magic, coal became the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The industrialization made possible by coal, the first of the fossil fuels to come into widespread use, was a watershed social and economic development. The growing use of fossil fuels, notes the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), “freed human society from the fluctuations of natural energy flows by unlocking the Earth’s vast stores of oil, coal, and natural gas. Tapping these ancient concentrated deposits of solar energy multiplied the rate at which energy could be poured into the human economy.”
The rapid socioeconomic transformation brought about by industrialization and made possible by fossil energy was without precedent in world history. The pace of change was as dramatic as the changes themselves. While the transition of muscle power from humans to animals, the development of windmills and watermills, and the development of sophisticated sailing ships took place over millennia, the societal improvements delivered by fossil fuels came within a few generations. As late as 1870, draft animals (mostly horses and mules) were the prime movers in the United States, but had all but disappeared from the streets of cities and towns along with their manure and the need for agricultural production dedicated to feed them – by the 1940s. Electricity, essentially absent from the daily lives of Americans in the 1880s, was widespread in offices, factories, and homes a few decades later, allowing light to displace the dark and the productive day to be lengthened.
Similarly, the number of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars, trucks, and buses on America’s roads and highways grew exponentially, as did the number of airplanes in the sky. Energy made new wealth possible, and more wealth – and the time energy provided to enjoy it – made leisure, travel and education possible for many more people.
The constant introduction of new products into the marketplace required energy producers to make better use of the resources at their disposal, and to find better ways of getting their product to the end user. Just as coal had displaced firewood as the chief source of fuel in the US by the mid-1880s, petroleum surpassed coal by 1951, as did natural gas as a heating source a few years later. Coal, however, would make a comeback in the form of coal-fired electricity plants that, by the beginning of the 21st century, supplied the US with just over 50 percent of its electricity.
America’s insatiable appetite for the good things energy delivers could not be satisfied by fossil fuels alone. Hydroelectric power, a renewable source of energy created by the damming of rapidly-flowing rivers, was introduced in the 1890s, as was nuclear power in the late 1950s. In recent years, other renewable sources of energy – wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal – have entered the fray. However, while the use of renewable fuels is expected to increase in the years to come, their overall contribution to America’s energy pool is forecast by the EIA to remain very modest, far behind fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Nuclear power , by contrast, which currently supplies about 20 percent of US electricity, is expected to become a more prominent player as a new generation of power plants go into service in the decades to come.
The rise of the digital age at the turn of the 21st century, with its high-speed computers, laser-jet printers, high-definition television sets, and other gigabyte-rich devices, will only increase demand for energy. In the decades ahead, almost all of the expanding demand for energy will be met by fossil fuels, nuclear power, and renewable sources – in that order. New sources of energy are also likely to enter the picture. The fuel cell, for example, has attracted much attention. Like the solar cell, it transforms fuel into electricity in a single step, completely bypassing the furnace, the turbine, and the generator. Fuel cells, however, consume pure hydrogen, a gas that’s difficult to liquefy, is viscous under high pressure, and penetrates the smallest of cracks, all of which means that it poses serious safety problems which must be overcome. It remains to be seen whether fuel cells or some other technological innovation will dramatically alter the energy picture in the near future.
The only certainty is that inquiring minds will continue to probe for new breakthroughs. Energy resides in the human mind. It is the transformation of unused or even useless by mankind through applied logic into a force for good that lessens the load for all of us and in doing so, increases our productivity and extends the amount of one of the truly finite resources – time. And it has been by trial and error that humans, over thousands of years, have used their ingenuity to make energy work for them.
Not all parts of the world have shared in the benefits modern energy has bestowed on the US, Europe, Japan, and other industrialized countries. Endemic poverty in under-developed countries means that some two billion people have no access to electricity or clean drinking water. Available, affordable and reliable energy provides the foundation for human betterment. In its absence, life is often nasty, brutish and short. According to the World Health Organization, some 2.8 million people worldwide die annually because of indoor air pollution, mainly as a result of cooking and heating in the home with solid fuels (e.g., dung, wood, and coal).
The conditions prevailing in the world’s poorest regions today are not unlike those experienced by our ancestors only a few generations ago. The conditions and the quality of life without energy are strikingly similar in different geographic regions around the globe. There are many reasons why poverty and disease have persisted in some parts of the world but are largely absent in others. Without doubt, however, access to clean and affordable energy is one of the characteristics that distinguish the industrialized world from less fortunate regions. In other words, energy matters.
The US today consumes energy from many sources for an even more diverse set of purposes. As we have grown into the world’s largest economy, our energy choices have shifted from wood, biomass and small amounts of coal to those energy resources used for higher forms of human socioeconomic organization such as industry, manufacturing, transportation and communication.
Our sources of energy today include old standbys – such as wood in the form of biomass and coal, which is used to produce over half of our electricity – as well as other forms of energy that create a diverse energy portfolio.
Electricity generation is now our leading form of energy consumption, which is understood by most Americans who search for additional electrical outlets around their energy-comforted homes to plug in the latest electronic gadgets or labor saving devices that make life more enjoyable or lighten their loads. Transportation – and the freedoms it affords Americans — is our next most popular consumer of energy. Much of this is consumed transporting the products of our industrial economy to their intended markets, and our industrial output is responsible for our 3rd largest amount of energy consumption. Finally, about 10 percent of our energy is consumed by Americans’ homes and business buildings, enabling families to gather at home comfortably and work in spaces that allow them…. through the use of energy…. to be more productive.
The US leads the world in economic output, productivity and energy consumption. As a fully integrated, complex economic system, energy matters. You can check for yourself the complexity of the system by using our interactive energy model, showing the energy the world’s greatest economy uses and how.