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From Forests to Fossil Fuels

What did the Founding Fathers use to power the American Revolution? Pretty much one fuel source: wood. And until the late 19th century, forests remained America’s chief energy source. Since then, it’s been mostly fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — with a little bit of hydroelectric, nuclear and a smidgen of renewables like wind and solar.

That’s the takeaway from a neat infographic put out yesterday by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the invaluable — and too often underappreciated — statistics arm of the Energy Department. The EIA has been keeping close tabs on U.S. and international energy use going back several decades, but obviously there was no U.S. of A in 1776, let alone an EIA. So Tyson Brown, the analyst who put together the brief, estimated energy use in the colonial era based on population at the time. Wood was just about the only fuel source early Americans had access to — whale oil for lamps would have been another one — which is one reason why the great forests of the eastern U.S. weresystematically cut down. Wood may qualify as a renewable resource, but it’s an inefficient one with the rather significant side effect of deforestation.

It’s notable that U.S. energy consumption as a whole didn’t increase all that much until the late 19th century, when coal — powering the trains that crisscrossed the country — and then petroleum began to enter the economy in a big way. Even today, renewables produce more energy than the U.S. as a whole would have used during the Civil War. But the energy story of the electrified 20th century is the story of fossil fuels: petroleum, natural gas and coal, which produced 87% of total U.S. primary energy over the past decade alone, even as renewables began to creep up. “What you have from the 1970s on is a parity between the existing technologies, with some tweaking on the edges,” says Brown. We’re still a carbon-based society.

And we’re unlikely to declare our independence from fossil fuels anytime soon. Brown notes that the EIA predicts that fossil fuels will still supply at least 75% of U.S. energy through the 2040s. There might be some shifts on the edge — note how coal has drooped in recent years, largely supplanted by unconventional gas — but that fact seems unlikely to change, barring either unforeseen technological shifts or strong environmental policy. We’d better hope those projections are wrong, or we could be living in a very hot and uncomfortable world by the nation’s 300th birthday in 2076.

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