U.S. Energy Sources: Fueling Progress and Problems


“The ecological crisis is doing what no other crisis in history has ever done — challenging us to a realization of a new humanity.”
– Jean Houston

An Impending Energy Crisis

Throughout U.S. history, the issues surrounding energy mostly involved the absence of cost-efficient sources to fuel the economy. However, issues of sustainability and ecological impact were not as conspicuous as they are now. Currently, the modern-day energy problem emphasizes finding new sources of energy to meet changing demands considering environmental factors such as climate change, cost-effectiveness, and renewability.

Currently, the U.S. uses a combination of non-renewable and renewable sources to produce energy. Non-renewable sources consist of coal, natural gas, petroleum, and nuclear power, while renewable sources include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower.  Non-renewable sources are the majority of all energy produced, making up 82.9% of the total U.S. energy consumption (EIA). However, they are not sustainable and have harmful environmental impacts. The goal of my project is to research both energy sources and U.S. energy consumption to create a future energy plan that will reduce environmental impact and be sustainable.

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History of U.S. Energy

In the course of U.S history, Americans have been facing the longstanding challenge of supplying the public’s energy demands, relating to the interaction between the population and new technologies, which require more energy as they develop. Since the first English settlers arrived, America has gone from wood-fired to fully air-conditioned homes. American transportation has evolved from horses to railroads to cars to the wide use of air transportation powered a variety of evolving energy sources. With these new technologies, America has struggled to supply the needed energy. Additionally, Americans have continuously sought a cheap and more efficient way of producing energy. Over time, society has emphasized technological advancement as a way to improve the lives of the public. However, because of our complacency in the energy industry due to it seeming as though it did not directly affect us, we allowed our technology to create issues such as climate change.

Settlers only needed energy for basic needs such as cooking and heating, thus wood was the preferred source of energy due to its abundance and practicality (Netschert and Schurr, 50). Up until 1885, Wood was the leading source of energy in the U.S. (U.S. Energy Information Administration).

Coal became more favorable than wood due to being cheaper and more efficient, thus the usage of wood began to steadily decline from 91% to 30% of the total energy supply between 1850 and 1895 (Netschert and Schurr, 38). Coal reached its peak around 1910, where it made up 76.8% if the energy supply, but declined post-World War 1 because natural gas and oil became more popular (Netschert and Schurr, 63).

In 1920, the beginning of the automobile industry caused the use of petroleum to increase more than 50 times by 1955 (Netschert and Schurr, 138). Following WWII, there was a sustained increase in the use of energy by the American public (Netschert and Schurr 138). Energy consumption doubled between 1939 and 1947 due to war efforts such as building planes, but also because people began to live more energy intensive lives (Andrews, 180). To fuel this demand, the U.S. government shifted nuclear weapon development following the war, to civilian purposes (Andrews, 183).

In 1973, due to an oil embargo by Saudi Arabia, there was a shortage of gasoline and power in the car industry, leading to increased prices (NY Times, 39). President Nixon described the critical question of the time as the availability of fuel (NY Times, 39). Roy D. Chapin, chairman of the American Motors Corporation, said that they were working on redesigning their cars to make them more efficient, and “direct rationing would be a last resort.” (NY Times, 39). President Nixon and Chapin’s remarks demonstrated the severity of the energy crisis and the historical problem of not having enough energy to keep up with the demand of the American public.

Although the 1970s showed Americans the problem of their energy demand, renewable energy was not developed substantially and energy use continued to increase after a slight pause (Energy Information Administration). In the late 2000s, the U.S. began the use of fracking, which led to an increase in the energy supply of natural gas and 1.7 million more jobs (Yergin, 78). With this new technology, natural gas became a more abundant fuel source and energy became much cheaper. However, while the American now had a stable supply of energy, they now had to face environmental and health problems related to the use of fossil fuels.

Future of U.S. Energy Consumption

graph of energy consumption in the United States, as explained in the article text
(U.S. Energy Information Administration)
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(U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Our energy usage has been rising exponentially, and with new advancements in technology, our future will likely be very energy-reliant. We cannot rely on non-renewable sources or sources that negatively impact the environment for a sustainable energy system. Instead, we have to rely on sources that will have minimal environmental effects and will last in the long term.

Our Energy Sources

  • Wind power is generated by turbines that capture the kinetic energy in wind (Department of Energy).
  • Solar power is generated by panels that capture energy from the sun.
  • Nuclear power is generated by nuclear fission, the splitting of uranium atoms.
  • Natural gas is made up of hydrocarbons found underground that can be used as fuel.
  • Coal is a fossil fuel found underground that can be used as fuel.
  • Petroleum is found in rock formations underground and is naturally occurring.
  • Biomass can be burned to create energy. It mainly consists of wood, garbage, crops, landfill gas, and alcohol fuels (“Biomass Explained”).
  • Hydropower uses a turbine to capture the kinetic energy of falling water.

Environmental & Health Impact of Each Source

Wind energy is a clean energy source with no significant environmental or health impacts. Wind energy can create jobs and can be built on farms or ranches. However, wind turbines are mostly located in rural areas which make it difficult to get power to urban areas. They can also harm wildlife such as birds (Department of Energy).

Solar energy is another clean and renewable energy source with minimal environmental and health impacts. Installing solar panels can reduce electricity bills and is low maintenance (“Pros and Cons of Solar Energy”)

Nuclear energy is a non-renewable source of energy that, unlike fossil fuels, does not emit significant amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. “Dollar for dollar, nuclear energy reactors are the most efficient current method for generating sustained power” ( O’Donnell). Nuclear energy also has the potential to be more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly with more research in the future. However, it still has many negative environmental effects. Accidents caused by human error or natural disasters in nuclear power plants can lead to massive casualties and destruction. Nuclear waste is highly toxic and radioactive ( O’Donnell). Also, with our current rate of consumption, nuclear energy is not sustainable due to our finite supply of uranium-235. “At the current rate of uranium consumption with conventional reactors, the world supply of viable uranium, which is the most common nuclear fuel, will last for 80 years” (Zyga).

Although natural gas emits only half of the CO2 as compared to coal, thirty-three percent of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, comes from the natural gas and petroleum industries (Lieberman). Natural gas appears to solve some of the energy issues but is still a fossil fuel and non-renewable. Natural gas is also toxic and extremely flammable, so natural gas leaks can be very dangerous (K, Aggeliki). Natural gas is non-renewable, so it should only be considered a temporary solution to the energy supply problem.

Coal is another non-renewable source of energy with many adverse effects on both the environment and public health. Coal emits carbon dioxide when burned and pollutes waterways. It is also known to emit mercury, which could negatively affect children who are exposed to it (Friedman) Petroleum is a non-renewable source of energy that, like coal, emits greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. At the current rate of extraction, it is estimated that our reserves will only last for another 53 years (Tully).

Biomass is a renewable source of energy that can help reduce the dependence of fossil fuels and aid in waste reduction. However, it also releases large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change (Akella).H

Hydropower is both a clean and renewable source of energy, and can also help rural communities. “Hydroelectric power plants supply electricity to remote communities, attract construction of highways, industry, and commerce. All these activities serve to uplift the economy of these remote areas, increase access to education and healthcare and enhance the overall life quality of residents.” (Rinkesh).

Future of Energy

Future of Fossil Fuels

Coal, petroleum, and natural gas are all non-renewable sources. This means they are only a temporary fix to the energy supply problem. Also, as they become more scarce and difficult to obtain, their price will rise. Fossil fuels negatively affect the environment because of the greenhouse gasses they emit that contribute to global warming. According to Leah Burrows, “Climate change will affect every American in the coming decades … From severe storms and catastrophic flooding to record-breaking droughts and deadly wildfires, Americans are living with the consequences of a changing climate every day” (Burrows). Extreme heat waves due to climate change have already killed hundreds of people and have the potential to negatively affect farming. As the temperature increases, there will be an increase in ground-level ozone, which can lead to serious respiratory illnesses (Burrows). Climate change is a very serious issue that cannot be ameliorated without the phasing-out of greenhouse gas-producing sources of energy.

In conclusion, coal and petroleum contribute most to climate change and should be targeted first, though natural gas should be phased out as well.

Future of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is much better for the environment and public health. Wind energy is mostly located in rural areas and should be the main power supply for people who live in rural areas. The company Sharp has introduced windows that function as solar panels. Technology like this can be used to power buildings in urban areas (“Pros and Cons of Solar Energy”). The downside of solar and wind is that they are both weather dependent. A solar panel will not collect as much energy at night or on cloudy days. Wind turbines will not collect as much energy on windy days. Hydropower is a more consistent form of renewable energy that will also be effective and cost-efficient when generating power. More hydro-electric power plants should be built in appropriate areas. Biomass is a carbon-neutral source because plants that are burned absorb close to the same amount of CO2 that is released. Along with new technology and carbon-capture systems, biomass should not pose a threat to the environment(Holden). However, considering the alternatives, it should not be used any more than it is now.”Solar energy can also be integrated into the materials used for buildings. Not long ago Sharp introduced transparent solar energy windows.”(“Pros and Cons of Solar Energy”).

Future of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear fission uses uranium as fuel. However, our uranium reserves will have depleted in roughly 80 years with our current technology (Zyga). Nuclear waste also poses a large threat to the environment and current nuclear technology should be phased out in the U.S. However, future nuclear technology, such as nuclear fusion, shows promise for being environmentally friendly and safe.

Nuclear fusion almost seems too good to be true. However, it is estimated that with sufficient funding, commercial fusion power will be available by 2033 (Starkey). Achieving nuclear fusion could make energy much more accessible and cheaper, which could accelerate the growth of the economy and the production of new advanced technology.

What Can You Do?

Even though the solutions to the energy crisis should be executed at federal and state levels, a way the public can help is by installing solar panels and other clean energy technology to support the growth of the clean energy industry.

Historical Research:

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