Our Energy Appetite

By Tanenbaum, B. Samuel | The World and I, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Our Energy Appetite


Tanenbaum, B. Samuel, The World and I


For two centuries, the U.S. economy flourished as energy consumption doubled every 25 years; but in the last quarter century, we have begun to use energy more carefully.

For most of U.S. history, this country's citizens have associated economic progress with feeding our growing energy appetite. As new sources of energy were discovered and harnessed, more and more energy- intensive technologies were developed and put in place. Consequently, the productivity of farms and industries was enhanced, and increasing comforts were provided for homes and workplaces.

Initially, the country's main energy source was wood, used in stoves and fireplaces. At the same time, fast-running streams in New England valleys were equipped with paddle wheels and turbines to provide power for factories and mills. In the early 1800s, enormous supplies of coal were discovered in the Appalachian states, and American life was soon transformed by coal-powered steam engines used in ships, trains, and factories.

Oil production began in western Pennsylvania in 1859, and huge supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas were later discovered in the western states. Coal surpassed wood as the major fuel around 1885, but oil became the main fuel by 1947. About four years later, natural gas surpassed coal as the second-leading energy source.

The first electrical power plant for commercial use was built by Thomas Edison in 1882, in New York City. Thereafter, many new electrical power plants were built, and the power supply grid was expanded across the nation. Thus, electricity became increasingly popular for numerous purposes, including lighting, heating, air-conditioning, and the operation of a wide variety of machines, appliances, and electronic devices. At the same time, Americans adopted gasoline and diesel engines for cars, tractors, trucks, and trains.

Currently, three fossil fuels--oil, natural gas, and coal--provide 85 percent of the energy consumed in the United States, including the energy used to generate electricity. Among them, coal is used almost exclusively to produce electricity. Nuclear power plants and renewable energy sources provide the remaining 15 percent.

A dramatic turnaround

Between 1776 and 1976, the demand for energy in the United States doubled every 25 years or so. Thus, energy consumption was about 250 times higher in 1976 than in 1776. During this period, there were intervals of faster or slower growth in the rate of energy consumption, but there was only one decade--during the Great Depression of the 1930s--when energy consumption actually decreased.

The rapid overall growth of energy consumption was possible because, until the 1970s, domestic energy supplies were both cheap and plentiful. In addition, although the United States began importing significant amounts of oil in the mid-1950s, its cost remained low. As a result, most Americans assumed that there was enough energy to meet ever-increasing demands, and they believed that the pursuit of higher standards of living required increasingly intensive uses of energy.

From 1976 to 2001, however, energy consumption increased by a relatively modest 28 percent--a significant break from the historic pattern. This change indicates a dramatic turnaround in the attitude of Americans toward energy consumption, suggesting that the country has moved into a new era, one in which economic growth has begun to occur without large increases in energy consumption.

There are several reasons for this remarkable change. In particular, Americans experienced sudden shortages of energy in 1973, following the Yom Kippur war, and again in 1979, after the Iranian revolution, when Middle Eastern countries reduced oil production sharply. These crises called attention to the need to conserve energy and move toward energy self-sufficiency [see "Fossil Fuels and Energy Independence," The World & I, May 2002, p. …

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