The Evolution of Energy: From Torches to Solar Panels

evolution-of-energyThroughout history, humans have discovered ways to take various energy sources and use them to their advantage.  From the simple task of burning wood for heat, to the monstrous amount of power created from nuclear energy, we have been determined to find the most efficient and economical ways to make our lives easier.  But how exactly did we go from primitive torches and fire pits to gushing oil wells and massive solar farms?  It has been quite a remarkable journey, and it all started about 800,000 years ago.  (Please note that the following dates may be approximations.)

770,000 B.C. – Humans living in Israel made a miraculous discovery and began realizing the advantages of harnessing fire.

1,000 B.C – Inhabitants of northeastern China began burning coal for heating and cooking purposes.  Over the next several hundred years, coal became popular with other populations such as the Romans and Northern Native Americans.

400 B.C. – Ancient Greeks and Romans built water wheels in streams and rivers to capture the energy to be used not only as a power source, but for irrigation as well.

347 AD – China became the birth place of the earliest known oil wells.  With depths of 800 feet, the Chinese drilled these wells using extensive bamboo pipelines and used the resource for lighting and heating.

1,000 – The first windmills were built in Persia and used to pump water and grind grain.  By 1300, windmills began to form the modern pinwheel shape in Western Europe, and in the 1590s, the Dutch greatly increased the size to become the most efficient version of the windmill.

1600s – Europeans slowly began to replace wood with coal and the British discovered that cooking coal transforms it into hot-burning coke.

1700s – Vast deposits of coal were discovered in North America, making intensive coal mining possible. Coal began to replace other energy sources such as wind and water, and quickly became a main source of energy around the world.

1820s – The first natural gas well was drilled in Fredonia, NY.  For most of the 19th century, natural gas was primarily used as a source of light.  The lack of pipeline infrastructure made it challenging to deliver long distances.

1830s – The electric generator, motor and relay were developed based off of Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetism.

1850s – The first petroleum rush occurred when the initial commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania.  Canadian chemist Abraham Gesner discovered how to distill kerosene from petroleum, leading to the spread of kerosene lamps.

1860s –Fearing that fossil fuels may eventually run out, Augustine Mouchot believed that burning coal could be replaced by the sun’s heat. He developed the first solar powered system to produce steam in order to operate industrial machinery.

1882 – On September 4, 1882, Thomas Edison flicked the switch in New York that started up America’s very first power plant.  That same year, one of the world’s first commercial hydroelectric plants went into operation in Appleton, Wisconsin.

1892 – The first use of geothermal heat to power nearby buildings occurred in Boise, Idaho.

1939 – The process of nuclear fission was discovered in Germany.  Three years later, the first nuclear fission reactor was designed and built.

1948 – The world’s largest petroleum deposit was found in the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia.

1950s – The first nuclear power plants began operating in Shippingport, Pennsylvania and Obninsk, USSR.  Eventually, nuclear power will account for roughly 20 percent of all U.S. electricity.

1970s – The production of U.S. oil began to decline which made dependence on imported oil intensify.  Arab oil producers announced an embargo against the U.S., causing the price of a barrel of oil to quadruple.

1973 – The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built to transfer oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.  Environmental groups protested, concerned about the effects on the surrounding environment and the risk of potential accidents.

1975 – The construction and operation of large commercial wind turbines began to have an impact on the energy industry.  Setting world records for diameter and power output, the U.S. emphasized the potential for wind energy.

1977 – The U.S. Department of Energy was formed.

1978 – The world’s first solar powered village was constructed at the Papago Indian Reservation in Schuchuli, Arizona.

1979 – A nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania caused thousands of nearby residents to evacuate.  Costing millions of dollars and years to clean up, the accident led to widespread opposition to nuclear power.

1980s – The U.S. began to embrace renewable energy, building monumental wind farms in New Hampshire and California, as well as the first large scale solar-thermal power plant in Daggett, California.  At the end of the decade, the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska became the biggest oil spill in U.S. waters.

1990s – The U.S. began to import more petroleum than it processed, and hydrogen power began to emerge as Congress passed an Act that encouraged research, development and demonstration.

1997 – General Motors released over 1,000 electric cars (the EV1).

2000s – As the U.S. made significant efforts to support hydrogen fuel development, wind energy, solar power, biofuels, and energy grid upgrades, a number of catastrophic events transpired.  Climate change, the coal ash spill in Tennessee, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan all raised concerns about where the world is headed in terms of energy.

From the discovery of coal to the implementation of solar panels, inventors and explorers have led the energy industry to where it is today.  Although these innovations sometimes come with damaging effects, we must continue to improve our energy sources and work to develop the safest and most resourceful technologies.  After all, where would we be without those curious individuals who insist on taking it one step further?

Sarah Battaglia
Energy Curtailment Specialists, Inc.

Sarah can be found on LinkedIn and Google+.

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