The three major categories of energy for electricity generation in the United States are fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum), nuclear energy and renewable energy (hydropower, wind, solar, etc.). In 2017, the primary energy sources for electricity generation in the United States included natural gas (32%), coal (30%), nuclear energy (20%), hydropower (7%), wind (6%), biomass (2%) and solar (1%).
The types of energy used for fuel in the United States have evolved over time. America’s energy evolution is a result of abundant natural resources, new technology and innovation. The major events in America’s energy evolution are as follows:
1740 – Coal is first used as a fuel source for heat by colonist in Virginia. Coal is a superior heat source than wood. 1740 marks the date that America began to move from wood as a fuel and deforestation to coal as a fuel.
1830 – A major boom in the construction of railroads occurs between 1830 to 1870. Railroads replace canals as the primary form of transportation of people, coal, tools and equipment. Railroads use wood and coal for fuel to generate steam to power the locomotives.
1855 – Benjamin Silliman, a Yale chemistry professor developed the process to produce kerosene, gasoline, and paraffin from oil. Kerosene was a better illuminant in lamps than whale oil. Professor Silliman’s research convinced investors to back George Bissell’s search for oil.
1859 – George Bissell and Edwin L. Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in the world on a site on Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania. The site of the well was selected based on natural oil seeps into the streams and rivers near Titusville, Pennsylvania.
1865 – John D. Rockefeller improved the processing processes, making kerosene significantly cheaper than whale oil. The development of inexpensive kerosene was a major contributor to the decline of the whaling industry. John D. Rockefeller saved many species of whales by dramatically reducing the demand for whale oil in lamps.
1880 – Coal surpassed wood, as the largest source of energy in the United States. Coal remained the largest source of energy in the United States until 1950. In 1950, oil became the largest source of energy in the United States, primarily because of the growing demand for automobile, truck and airplane fuel.
1882 – Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company built the first hydroelectric power plant in the United States. This is the first utility scale renewable energy power plant in the United States.
1911 – The US Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil Company, ruling it was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Standard Oil Company became Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon), Standard Oil of New York (Mobil), Standard Oil of California (Chevron), Standard Oil of Indiana (AMCO), Standard Oil of Ohio, Standard Oil of Kentucky (Kyso), The Ohio Oil Company (Marathon) and Atlantic Petroleum (ARCO).
The dissolution of Standard Oil Company increase competition for the search for oil. Increased competition increased drilling and accelerated the discovery of major reserves of oil in America and around the world.
1913 – Henry Ford begins production of automobiles using an assembly line. This is the beginning of the automobile industry and the demand for gasoline. Mass production of inexpensive automobiles was the driving force in the growing demand for gasoline in the United States and around the world.
1930 – The giant oil and gas field, East Texas Oil Field was discovered. This was the largest oil field in the United States in 1930. The field has produced over 5.4 billion barrels of oil and is still producing today.
1935 – The Hoover Dam, which is the largest hydroelectric plant in the United States, began operation. Because of the “Great Depression”, the federal government spent money in major projects like dams, hydroelectric projects, and roads in the 1930s. Most of those dams are still providing low cost, renewable energy today.
1941 – On August 1st, the United States placed on oil embargo on Japan due to Japan’s invasion into Manchuria and China. In 1941, the US produced 60% of the world’s oil and was the largest oil exporter in the world. Japan attached the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.
1947 – First offshore oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, by American independent Kerr-McGee. The American independent oil company, Kerr-McGee developed the technology to drill for oil and gas offshore. This technology quickly spread throughout the industry.
1950 – US begins to import oil. The economic prosperity in the US creates a demand for automobiles, which in turn increases the demand for gasoline.
1958 – The world’s first commercial nuclear power plant, the Shipping Port Atomic Power Station began operation outside of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
1960 – The first utility scale geothermal electricity generating plant begins operation in northern California (Cloverdale). The plant is still generating green, renewable energy today.
1973 – Oil crisis began in October 1973 when the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, a subset of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Counties (OPEC) implemented an oil embargo on nations that provided support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The oil embargo targeted Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, Rhodesia, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States. The global price of oil had risen from US $3 to $12 per barrel.
1975 – Refiners in the United States added lead to gasoline in the 1920s improve engine performance by reducing engine ‘knock’ and allowing higher engine compression. The reduction in lead in gasoline in the United States occurred because of the concern about the impact of lead on human health and protection of government mandated catalytic converters on all new automobiles. Catalytic converters were mandated to reduce toxic emissions from automobile exhaust.
1979 – The Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, although its small radioactive releases had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public. Its aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations.
1979 – Global crisis was created when oil demand surpassed oil supply because of the Iranian Revolution. Oil prices increased from $18.00 per barrel in 1979 to $39.50 per barrel in 1980.
1980 – The world’s first utility scale wind farm began operation with twenty 30 kW turbines at Crotched Mountain, New Hampshire.
1982 – The world’s first utility scale solar park was built by Arco Solar at Lugo, California. The solar park’s capacity was 1 MW.
1992 – Energy Policy Act was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on October 24, 1992. The act established a comprehensive energy efficiency program that included incentives for energy conservation in buildings and created efficiency standards for appliances.
2005 – Energy Policy Act was passed by the US Congress on July 29, 2005 and signed into law by President Bush on August 8, 2005. The act provided tax incentives and loan guarantees for energy production including $4.3 billion for nuclear power, $2.8 billion for fossil fuel production, $2.7 billion to extend the renewable electricity production credit, $1.6 billion in tax incentives for clean coal, $1.3 billion for energy conservation and efficiency, $1.3 billion for alternative fuel vehicles and fuels (bioethanol, biomethane, liquified natural gas, and propane) and $500 million for clean renewable energy bonds for government energy projects.
2008 – Coal production in the United States began to decline due to a decrease in demand in the United States and Europe.
2010 – On April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, contracted by British Petroleum had an uncontrolled flow of oil to surface, which is called a “blow out”. The flow of oil was contained on September 17, 2018 and is the worst oil spill in the petroleum industry. The U.S. government estimates 4.9 million barrels of oil contaminated the Gulf of Mexico during the blow out. Prior to the blow out of the British Petroleum Macondo #1, only eight wells had an uncontrolled flow of oil and the total spillage was 44 barrels of oil. Prior to the British Petroleum Macondo #1 disaster, the federal government supported opening oil and gas drilling in federal waters. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida also supported opening federal waters to oil and gas drilling. The support for offshore oil and gas drilling immediately changed course following the British Petroleum Macondo #1 disaster.
2013 – From 2011 to 2013, the amount of oil produced in the United States increased by over 1,795,000 Barrels of Oil per Day. The dramatic increase in oil production was a result of small, dynamic oil companies using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to recover oil and gas from low porosity and permeability sandstones and siltstones, frequently called “shale oil”.
2014 – The largest solar thermal power plant in the world, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility began operation on February 13, 2014. The plant has a power capacity of 392 MW.
2016 – The first offshore wind farm in the United States begins operation off the coast of Rhode Island. The first offshore wind farm in the world commenced operation in 1991 in Denmark. By 2016, the United States was no longer an energy leader in the world.
In 2018, America generates more electricity from nuclear power than any other country in the world. However, the $/kWh to consumers for electricity from nuclear power is significantly higher than hydropower, wind and solar power. America has significant fossil fuel reserves. However, America is still a major importer of oil for transportation fuel (automobiles, trucks and planes). Additionally, fossil fuels are not renewable, and the world will eventually deplete the economic quantities of coal, oil and natural gas.
How will America keep electricity flowing and lights on in our hospitals, homes and schools? America has significant quantities of undeveloped renewable energy, which could maintain reliable, sustainable, clean power at affordable prices. Will America once again become a global leader in the development of energy?