energy, sources of

sources of energy, origins of the power used for transportation, for heat and light in dwelling and working areas, and for the manufacture of goods of all kinds, among other applications. The development of science and civilization is closely linked to the availability of energy in useful forms. Modern society consumes vast amounts of energy in all forms: light, heat, electrical, mechanical, chemical, and nuclear. The rate at which energy is produced or consumed is called power, although this term is sometimes used in common speech synonymously with energy.

Types of Energy

Chemical and Mechanical Energy

An early source of energy, or prime mover, used by humans was animal power, i.e., the energy obtained from domesticated animals. Later, as civilization developed, wind power was harnessed to drive ships and turn windmills, and streams and rivers were diverted to turn water wheels (see water power). The rotating shaft of a windmill or water wheel could then be used to crush grain, to raise water from a well, or to serve any number of other uses. The motion of the wind and water, as well as the motion of the wheel or shaft, represents a form of mechanical energy. The source of animal power is ultimately the chemical energy contained in foods and released when digested by humans and animals. The chemical energy contained in wood and other combustible fuels has served since the beginning of history as a source of heat for cooking and warmth. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, water power was used to provide energy for factories through systems of belts and pulleys that transmitted the energy to many different machines.

Heat Energy

The invention of the steam engine, which converts the chemical energy of fuels into heat energy and the heat into mechanical energy, provided another source of energy. The steam engine is called an external-combustion engine, since fuel is burned outside the engine to create the steam used inside it. During the 19th cent. the internal-combustion engine was developed; a variety of fuels, depending on the type of internal-combustion engine, are burned directly in the engine's chambers to provide a source of mechanical energy. Both steam engines and internal-combustion engines found application as stationary sources of power for different purposes and as mobile sources for transportation, as in the steamship, the railroad locomotive (both steam and diesel), and the automobile. All these sources of energy ultimately depend on the combustion of fuels for their operation.

Electrical Energy

Early in the 19th cent. another source of energy was developed that did not necessarily need the combustion of fuels—the electric generator, or dynamo. The generator converts the mechanical energy of a conductor moving in a magnetic field into electrical energy, using the principle of electromagnetic induction. The great advantage of electrical energy, or electric power, as it is commonly called, is that it can be transmitted easily over great distances (see power, electric). As a result, it is the most widely used form of energy in modern civilization; it is readily converted to light, to heat, or, through the electric motor, to mechanical energy again. The large-scale production of electrical energy was made possible by the invention of the turbine, which efficiently converts the straight-line motion of falling water or expanding steam into the rotary motion needed to turn the rotor of a large generator.

Nuclear Energy

The development of nuclear energy made available another source of energy. The heat of a nuclear reactor can be used to produce steam, which then can be directed through a turbine to drive an electric generator, the propellers of a large ship, or some other machine. In 1999, 23% of the electricity generated in the United States derived from nuclear reactors; however, since the 1980s, the construction and application of nuclear reactors in the United States has slowed because of concern about the dangers of the resulting radioactive waste and the possibility of a disastrous nuclear meltdown (see Three Mile Island; Chernobyl; Fukushima).

Environmental Considerations

The demand for energy has increased steadily, not only because of the growing population but also because of the greater number of technological goods available and the increased affluence that has brought these goods within the reach of a larger proportion of the population. For example, despite the introduction of more fuel-efficient motor vehicles (average miles per gallon increased by 34% between 1975 and 1990), the consumption of fuel by vehicles in America increased by 20% between 1975 and 1990. The rise in gasoline consumption is attributable to an increase in the number of miles the average vehicle traveled and to a 40% increase in the same period in the number of vehicles on the road. Since 1990 average fuel efficiency has changed relatively little, while the number of vehicles, the number of miles they travel, and the total amount of fuel consumed has continued to increase.

As a result of the increase in the consumption of energy, concern has risen about the depletion of natural resources, both those used directly to produce energy and those damaged during the exploitation of the fuels or as a result of contamination by energy waste products (see under conservation of natural resources). Most of the energy consumed is ultimately generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas, and the world has only a finite supply of these fuels, which are in danger of being used up. Also, the combustion of these fuels releases various pollutants (see pollution), such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, which pose health risks and may contribute to acid rain and global warming. In addition, environmentalists have become increasingly alarmed at the widespread destruction imposed on sensitive wildlands (e.g., the tropical rain forests, the arctic tundra, and coastal marshes) during the exploitation of their resources.

The Search for New Sources of Energy

The environmental consequences of energy production have led many nations in the world to impose stricter guidelines on the production and consumption of energy. Further, the search for new sources of energy and more efficient means of employing energy has accelerated. The development of a viable nuclear fusion reactor is often cited as a possible solution to our energy problems. Presently, nuclear-energy plants use nuclear fission, which requires scarce and expensive fuels and produces potentially dangerous wastes. The fuel problem has been partly helped by the development of breeder reactors, which produce more nuclear fuel than they consume, but the long-term hopes for nuclear energy rest on the development of controlled sources using nuclear fusion rather than fission. The basic fuels for fusion are extremely plentiful (e.g., hydrogen, from water) and the end products are relatively safe. The basic problem, which is expected to take decades to solve, is in containing the fuels at the extremely high temperatures necessary to initiate and sustain nuclear fusion.

Another source of energy is solar energy. The earth receives huge amounts of energy every day from the sun, but the problem has been harnessing this energy so that it is available at the appropriate time and in the appropriate form. For example, solar energy is received only during the daylight hours, but more heat and electricity for lighting are needed at night. Despite technological advances in photovoltaic cells, solar energy has not become a more significantly more financially competitive source of energy. Although several solar thermal power plants are now in operation in California, they are not yet able to compete with conventional power plants on an economic basis.

Some scientists have suggested using the earth's internal heat as a source of energy. Geothermal energy is released naturally in geysers and volcanoes. In California, some of the state's electricity is generated by the geothermal plant complex known as the Geysers, which has been in production since 1960, and in Iceland, which is geologically very active, roughly 90% of the homes are heated by geothermal energy. Still another possible energy source is tidal energy. A few systems have been set up to harness the energy released in the twice-daily ebb and flow of the ocean's tides, but they have not been widely used, because they cannot operate turbines continuously and because they must be built specifically for each site.

Another direction of research and experimentation is in the search for alternatives to gasoline. Possibilities include methanol, which can be produced from wood, coal, or natural gas; ethanol, an alcohol produced from grain, sugarcane, and other agriculture plants and currently used in some types of U.S. motor fuel (e.g., gasohol and E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline); compressed natural gas, which is much less polluting than gasoline and is currently used by a 1.5 million vehicles around the world; and electricity, which if ever practicable would be cheaper and less polluting, especially if derived from solar energy, rather than gasoline.


See G. R. Harrison, The Conquest of Energy (1968); F. Barnaby, Man and the Atom: The Uses of Nuclear Energy (1971); W. G. Steltz and A. M. Donaldson, Aero-Thermodynamics of Steam Turbines (1981); T. N. Veziroglu, ed., Alternative Sources of Energy (1983 and 1985) and Renewable Energy Sources (Vol. 4, 1984); G. L. Johnson, Wind Energy Systems (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Energy: Perspectives, Problems, and Prospects
Michael B. McElroy.
Oxford University Press, 2010
Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know
Jose Goldemberg.
Oxford University Press, 2012
Energy Resources Development: Politics and Policies
Richard L. Ender; John Choon Kim.
Quorum Books, 1987
Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age
Bruce Podobnik.
Temple University Press, 2006
Energy, Society & Environment: Technology for a Sustainable Future
David Elliott.
Routledge, 2003 (2nd edition)
A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global Energy Crisis
Hewitt D. Crane; Edwin M. Kinderman; Ripudaman Malhotra.
Oxford University Press, 2010
Energy and the Rise and Fall of Political Economy
Bernard C. Beaudreau.
Greenwood Press, 1999
Renewable Energy Sources for Development
Ottinger, Richard L.; Williams, Rebecca.
Environmental Law, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring 2002
Third Millennium Capitalism: Convergence of Economic, Energy, and Environmental Forces
Wyatt M. Rogers Jr.
Quorum Books, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Part II "Global Energy Resources"
Multinationals and the New World of Energy Development: A Corporate Perspective
Imle, John F., Jr.
Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 1, Fall 1999
China's Past, China's Future: Energy, Food, Environment
Vaclav Smil.
Routledge, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Energy"
Population and the Environment in China
Qu Geping; Li Jinchang; Jiang Baozhong; Gu Ran; Robert B. Boardman.
Lynne Rienner Publications, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Population and Energy Resources"
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