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Understanding the History of Energy in the US

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Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Jun 27, 2022

Energy has helped to maintain our homes for years. The types of energy sources we use have evolved. Renewable energy sources are currently a hot topic. Here is some of the history from the past to the present. 

Energy Usage of the Past

The Industrial Revolution sparked the use of energy powered by coal. Much of the coal was used to manufacture iron. The iron helped to build railroads and bridges. In 1763, James Watt improved the steam engine.

He created a separate chamber to condense steam without cooling the rest of the engine. This machine was adopted across multiple industries. Coal then becomes a dominant fuel source, especially in the UK. Up until 2019, fossil fuels outranked renewable sources.  In 1935, the invention of the forced air furnace made oil a popular source. Oil then became the dominant fuel and energy source for the 1900s.

After coal, the early development of solar power came to play. Edmond Becquerel the photovoltaic effect. This was the first step toward learning about solar energy. He created the first photovoltaic cell from his father's lab. Shortly after, Russel Ohl, an American engineer, developed the world's first solar cell.

The next energy source that developed earlier is wind. In 1887, Professor James Blyth created the first electricity-generating windmill. This helped to power appliances in the home. Around the same time, Dane Poul La Cour constructed relatively advanced wind turbines.

In 1980, the first wind farm opened in New Hampshire. It consisted of 20 wind turbines rated at 30 kilowatts each. The turbine manufacturing company, US Wind Power, ran the farm. They improved their designs and became one of the largest turbine manufacturers. Although they eventually filed for bankruptcy due to technical problems and a weak US market.

Energy Usage Today

With the impacts of climate change, we shift how we use energy. There is a push toward renewable sources, such as solar. Solar panels on roofs are popular for homeowners. Although they have a higher upfront cost, tax incentives can help balance this. Some designers are also looking into solar roofs from companies like Tesla. We are also experimenting with energy from the earth through geothermal heat pumps.

The other important aspect is improving energy efficiency in building designs. There are multiple ways to do this, including:

  • Air sealing cracks.
  • Adding insulation.
  • Letting in more natural light.
  • Having a quality HVAC system.
  • Using LED light bulbs.

Technology can also help to improve energy efficiency. Smart devices can control usage and provide data to make smarter choices. For example, a smart thermostat learns your temperature preferences. It also automatically lowers when you leave home, wasting less energy. These are also more convenient because you can control them from your phone.

Smart devices are also great for the kitchen. Energy-star-rated appliances are better for the environment. Also, smart dishwashers can increase efficiency and conserve water. Plus, this helps lower homeowners' utility bills. In fact, using Energy Star devices can save about $450 on bills.

Builders are also trying to reach the goal of net-zero emissions. This means to have a backbone between greenhouse gasses released and absorbed. Carbon emissions can pollute the air and lead to global warming.

The construction process emits tons of gasses at each stage. In fact, the industry generates about 50% of annual global CO2 emissions. Also, some materials are thrown away during demolition. These end up in landfills and take time to break down. When they do, they emit methane.

Here are a few tips for reaching net-zero solutions:

  • Use vehicles and equipment that are powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels.
  • Rely on sources such as solar, wind and nuclear.
  • Remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • Reuse items during a remodel.
  • Use less plastic packaging.

Energy Over the Years

We use similar energy sources today as we did back then. Although, the way we use them has slightly changed. We now use energy to power smart devices and advanced appliances. Also, there is more focus on using renewable energy to help the environment.

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