Energy Policy

Earliest Energy


Earliest Energy

In order to understand where we are with our energy resources and consumption patterns today, it's worth taking a look back at how human energy use has changed over time. Most of us have trouble imagining a day without interior lighting in our homes or Internet connectivity, so imagining early humans and their most primitive of energy resources is somewhat challenging.

The Industrial Revolution and Energy Use

It really wasn't until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s that human's ability to harness energy on a (relatively) large, efficient scale took place and truly revolutionized our ways of life and ability to perform work. Prior to that, early people relied primarily on caloric energy from the food they consumed to give the energy they needed to perform their basic tasks for survival. With the discovery of fire and the ability to burn biomass (wood, animal dung, charcoal), humans then had an important source of heat.

Figure 1.1: Global Energy Consumption Graph

With the domestication of animals, humans were able to transition from a more nomadic way of life as a hunter/gatherer into a more agrarian society. Harnessing animal energy allowed early humans to grow more food more efficiently and stay in one place. It comes as no surprise that the ability to produce more food easily translated into sustained population growth. Early society was taking a different shape, thanks in large part to human's ability to utilize these energy opportunities.

Consumption moved from wood (1775) to coal (1883) to petroleum, nat. gas, nuclear & hydro (1950 on). More in text below.
Figure 1.2: US Energy Consumption Graph

As the graph above illustrates, wood remained the dominant fuel source until it was surpassed by coal powering the Industrial Revolution in the late 1880s. Throughout wood's reign as the world's primary fuel source, overall energy consumption grew steadily, but remained quite low compared to the levels that would develop in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Coal was our primary energy source until around the late 1940s when it was overtaken by oil, which remains out main energy source.

This explosion in energy consumption changed human history in almost every way. The ability to mass produce goods and a focus on a consumption-based economy were huge paradigm shifts from previous subsistence societies. The migration of people from rural areas to cities for work led to issues associated with poor sanitation and working conditions. But many of the modern conveniences on which we've become reliant were born out of this era.