InTrans / May 26, 2015

Going green: The history of re"new"able energy

Go! Magazine

Solar panelsposted on May 26, 2015

Energy and transportation have always been interlinked. All of the ways that people and commodities go from place-to-place requires energy, much of which is from non-renewable sources (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas). These non-renewable sources can be depleted. They can run out. First there will be shortages, second comes the inflated (high) prices, and then, thirdly, eventually, the resource is just no longer available.

Chart: Total percentage of renewable energy used in the US
Total percentage of renewable energy used in the US. Photo from Wikipedia.

Did you know there is a direct link between energy from non-renewable sources and poor environmental and human health? For example, over five million workdays have been canceled and 600,000 cases of asthma attacks have been linked directly to pollution from nearby fossil-fuel power plants. Because of this, the United States has recognized the need for a more diverse “energy profile,” which means getting energy from different, especially “renewable,” energy sources.

But what is “renewable energy?” It’s an energy source. Except this one can be used over and over again while naturally regenerating itself. Think of solar power, for example. Solar energy is derived from the sun’s radiation. The sun is a powerful source of energy and provides the Earth with as much energy every hour as we collectively use in a year worldwide.

Some other examples of renewable energy sources used in the United States include wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower.

Renewable energy has been around for like forever, right? Correct! The history of renewable energy sources date back to the beginning of civilization, however, only in recent decades has technology been a main focus as the United States’ concerns over energy shortages and the prospect of climate change continue to build.

When did it all start?

Solar energy

Did you know that the first person to discover how to harness solar energy was William Robert Grove in 1839? He was also the inventor of the first hydrogen fuel cell 1. However, it took almost 100 years before his technology became close to 10 percent efficient, which then made it more attractive for implementation. Using his technology, the first large-scale solar plant was built in California in 1981, which used a total of 1,818 mirrors to reflect light into a receiver that produced heat to run a generator.

Hydroelectric power

Did you know that the earliest peoples to utilize water for power was the Europeans in 200 BC? They used this water power to control mills that crushed grain. Then, after several centuries, water was used to harness the power of electricity. The first hydroelectric power plant was built in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882. A hydroelectric power plant works by capturing the energy of falling water by storing water in a reservoir that is then released by a dam, which can control the flow of water falling (i.e., control the amount of energy released). The water turns a turbine, which powers a generator and creates energy to be dispersed through transmission lines. Hydroelectric power stations are still widely used, with the highest concentration of plants located on the Columbia River in Canada, Washington, and Oregon. Dam production peaked in the 1960s, and then, following an environmental legislation by the federal government, the creation of new hydroelectric power plants decreased due to their negative impact on water ecosystems.

Wind energy

Did you know that windmills were initially used to grind grain beginning as early as 9,000 AD in the Persian Empire (Middle East)? Later, in the 1590s, windmills were adopted by the Dutch in order to pump water and reduce flooding. It wasn’t until 1888, in Cleveland, Ohio, that the first wind turbine was created to generate electricity. Today, the largest wind farm in the world is located in California, which includes 6,000 wind turbines over 50,000 acres. Why so many? Construction of wind farms began in 1981 in response to the energy crisis in the 1970s, which prompted the Department of Energy to fund major wind turbine designs making large-scale wind farms possible.


Did you know that the alcohol you drink (i.e., ethanol) was originally being used in 1826 to power engines? In the 1940s, the first ethanol plant was built. In the United States most ethanol is actually created through the fermentation of corn. During the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929-1939, ethanol production was greatly supported to help boost corn production and increase the price of corn for farmers. However, the production and consumption of ethanol really “powered up” in 2007 when the United States passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which put a minimum Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) of 15 billion gallons by 2015. The RFS is a federal program that requires that at least 10 percent of transportation fuel originate from renewable energy, such as ethanol.

Geothermal power

Did you know that the world’s first known geothermal (i.e., using the heat of the Earth to create energy) district heating system was created in Idaho in 1892? However, it wasn’t until 1921 that the world’s first geothermal power plant was built in California. Geothermal power really took off in 1970 following the implementation of the Geothermal Steam Act, which allowed the leasing of federal land (other than land in National Parks) that contained geothermal resources. Today, the Bureau of Land Management manages 818 geothermal leases mainly in the western United States and in Alaska, which creates enough power to satisfy electrical needs for nearly 1.5 million homes.

Why all the interest?

Did you notice anything in common between each renewable energy source (besides hydroelectricity)? All of these sources increased drastically just within the last few decades, beginning in the 1970s. What was the motivation? Well, most people point to the oil crisis of 1973 and 1979 as the impetus for why the United States first began to think more seriously about renewable energy.

An energy crisis happens when demand outweighs supply (whether due to infrastructure issues, limits in production, government tax hikes, market monopoly, or other reasons). This crisis had a huge impact on the price of energy. As an example, let’s take the oil crisis of 1973. The reason for the energy crisis was due to an embargo (ban on trade) against the United States from oil-rich countries due to international conflict. The United States’ involvement in the Yom Kippur War created tension with oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Qatar. As a result, oil prices rose 300 percent in just one year.

The effects of this on the transportation sector was huge. Cars became much more fuel efficient, averaging 17.5 miles/gallon in 1985 as compared to 13.5 miles/gallon in 1970. Also, there was a greater focus on harnessing renewable energy, specifically wind and solar energy. Additionally, interest in mass transit increased greatly following the oil crises. Since 1972, the number of riders using public transit has grown by 55 percent, making the amount of riders over 10.4 billion today.

Is alternative energy still popular?

The increase in renewable energy clearly coincides with the energy crises of the 1970s. The United States has begun to heavily invest in alternative energy sources to diversify their energy portfolio in order to offset any impacts from future energy crises, which are likely to happen. However, researchers from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that the United States should be spending between $8-30 billion per year on renewable energy research to address climate change, whereas actual spending is around $3.5 billion per year. Today, the United States consumes almost 20 percent of the world’s energy, but yet only makes up five percent of the world’s population. Reducing our reliance on energy through efficiency and conservation will help, but we also need to greatly invest in renewable energy sources for our future.

Did you know?

  1. A hydrogen fuel cell is a cell that requires continuous energy (e.g., the sun) in order to create a chemical reaction. Solar power can be stored as hydrogen in a fuel cell, which produces electricity. The only byproduct is water and heat.

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

Go! Magazine Article Index