There is so much talk about energy these days, but do you know what that means?
Scientists define energy as the ability to do work. What that means is that humans have found ways to change one form of energy to another to work for us. For example, we change wood into heat when we burn it.
Wood, a biomass, was the first source of energy. Can’t you just picture the cave dwellers around their fires, cooking their food and keeping warm? We still do that when we go camping.
Then along came the Industrial Revolution
The fossil fuel coal was also used as long ago as 1,000 B.C is. But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that started in England in the mid-1700s that coal began to replace biomass as the primary source of energy. This completely changed how the world operated. At the same time, the human population began to grow in leaps and bounds, right along with energy consumption.
Although wood is a renewable energy source, the forests were disappearing under the onslaught of industrialization. Coal was plentiful, so more and more industries began to burn it for energy.
Back in those days, when coal and other fossil fuels, (oil and natural gas hadn’t even been discovered) seemed to be in endless supply, industry became dependent on them. Scientists back then had no way of knowing that these are non-renewable resources and would eventually run out.
Oil and Natural Gas
The massive use of oil and natural gas didn’t start until the late 1800s and early 1900s when large reserves were discovered. In 1859, Edwin L. Drake drilled the world’s first oil well in Texas that launched the modern petroleum industry. This high energy fuel led to the invention of the first cars.
Up until the mid-1900s, no one appeared concerned that the world would run out of these energy sources. Until in 1949, a scientist called M. King Hubbert, predicted that the fossil fuel era would be very short-lived. The industrial world began to realize we would soon have to rely on other energy sources.
By this time, almost all industry was using oil, coal and natural gas. The cost of changing the systems to alternative energy sources was way too expensive, so they just kept on doing what they have been doing for a couple of hundred years.
Nuclear power has a long and controversial history. Most people think of the nuclear bomb, not the useful energy it produces. The first full-scale nuclear power plant came online in Shippingport, PA in 1957. Most nuclear power plants are powered by uranium, which is in short supply. A big problem with these power plants, is how to get rid of the waste generated by the plants. The radioactive wastes could take at least 10,000 years to break down into harmless elements. Most people don’t want that kind of dangerous stuff stored or buried near them.
Alternative Renewable Energy Sources
Did you know that every minute enough of the sun’s energy reaches the Earth’s surface to meet the world’s energy demands for a whole year? If we combined this amazing energy source with wind energy, moving water energy and geothermal heat (heat that comes from the center of the Earth), we wouldn’t need to use so much of the non-renewable fuels.
Way back in 1883, a man named Charles Fritts built the first real solar cell. And even further back than that, in 500–900 AD, the first windmills were developed in Persia for pumping water and grinding grain. Going still further back in time to more than 2000 years ago, hydropower was used by the Greeks to turn water wheels for grinding grains.
So using alternative energy sources, what we now know are renewable sources, is nothing new.
The most important thing about the renewable energy sources is that if we use them, then the other fossil fuels (non-renewable) will last longer. This means that industries and people will have a bit more time to convert the factories, cars and other energy hogs to run on alternative fuels.