The Modern Energy Evolution

By Peter LeFort, California Hydrogen Business Council

One hundred years ago, the world relied almost exclusively on wood for heating. Water wheels, windmills, and steam engines were used for other energy requirements. A major source of energy was used for agriculture; this includes horses, mules, and other draft animals, as well as human labor.

With the advent of coal-burning technology, wood rapidly decreased as a source of energy, especially in urban areas and major cities. The availability of coal offered an economic advantage as the supply of wood diminished exponentially. Industrial energy demands were gradually converted to coal and, by the start of the 20th Century, most of the world’s energy requirements were being supplied by coal (the exception being wood-burning stoves in private residences for heat and hot water).

After World War I, oil and natural gas began replacing coal as a primary energy carrier. Both oil and natural gas were more efficient to transport and store. During the following four decades, the transition from coal to oil (caused by improvements in efficiency, not scarcity) was nearly completed.

The next milestone of American energy conversion came about following the U.S. Navy, railroad, and electric utilities’ switch to oil as their primary fuel. The use of coal became relegated to the production of electric power and steel due to the economics of large-scale, baseload power utilities.

In the field of transportation, during the post-World War II era, efficient oil-fired diesels replaced coal as the primary fuel. In part, this was due to the evolution from public rail to personal automobiles. This change was followed by residential and commercial customers using pipeline natural gas for home heating. The gasoline era evolved in response to the growing demand in support of the automobile. This growth in fossil fuel use led to the establishment of an energy infrastructure network not seen in previous attempts by mankind.

After World War II, nuclear fission was thought to be the next logical step in meeting the world’s requirement for a inexpensive, inexhaustible source of energy. However, between the very limited and costly supply of nuclear fuel and the devastating radioactive disposal dilemma, nuclear energy was proven to be economically and environmentally risky. The growth of aerospace and nuclear technologies during the Cold War have resulted in a new generation of energy resources. Fuel cells based on new materials offer a pathway to the widespread use of alternative (clean) energy. Many industries are developing, testing, and demonstrating fuel cells for a variety of applications, both in transportation and stationary power. Fuel cells will be part of the evolving future of energy.

©1998. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Home Page • Return to NHA News Index