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Drawing Inspiration from the Story of Energy

Energy fuels everything: the sun fuels the earth, the elements of the earth fuel the body of all living things, and harnessed energy sources fuel our civilization. It’s understandable, then, that we should be concerned with ways to transform national energy sectors. Today, our primary concern with energy is with overcoming the problems associated with energy sources. As a planet, we are running out of oil, coal, and gas. And while we do have some alternative energy solutions, they too, are problematic. Nuclear fuel, for instance, raises concerns about safety, and while hydropower is clean we still don’t have the capacity for it to fuel everything.

Perhaps one way of getting perspective on the future of energy is thinking back on how far we’ve come. Refreshing our spirit with the story of energy in the modern world may help give us the spark of inspiration and the dash of courage necessary to continue the quest to develop our energy resources. In fact, when you look at historical documents for sale, you'll see that Thomas Edison had quite the hand in the development of energy as we know it today, and he even had a hand in the development of batteries.

The Modern Story of Energy

The modern story of energy starts around 1850. Before then, wood was used for almost everything from heating to cooking to producing the steam that powered railroad engines. Other sources did exist like wind, coal, water, peat, and natural gas, but they were used in a limited amount and varied depending on what people could afford. While most affluent families might be able to afford coal, many of the poorer people depended on peat, which gave off an unpleasant odor along with the heat it provided. From 1850 through the next hundred years, coal supplanted wood as the main source of energy, with wood, natural gas, wind, and water used less extensively. Then from the 1900s on, oil and natural gas became the main source of fuel. All of these sources of energy were and still are inefficient.

When it comes specifically to electricity, the story really begins in the late 1800s and was pioneered by the discoveries made by scientists like Michael Faraday, who determined the principles behind electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and electrolysis. Later, the application of energy for the benefit of society was brought to the forefront in the battle of the currents, direct current (DC) vs. alternating current (AC), championed by Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla respectively. While some of their experiments and displays would be frowned upon now by organizations like PETA, the discoveries they were able to make through these methods are what allow us to be comfortable in our homes and offices today.

Currently, our concern is with the development of renewable energy sources, as the fossil fuels we have relied on for so long are being depleted at a rapid rate. We are looking at solar energy for converting the energy of the sun into electricity and heat; wind energy for converting the energy of air in motion created by the unequal heating of the earth; biomass energy for converting the energy of stored sunlight in organic material into chemical energy; hydro energy for converting the energy of rushing water into electricity; geothermal energy for converting the heat of the earth for small applications like greenhouses; and ocean energy for converting the energy of tides, caused by the gravitational tug between the sun and the moon and the earth’s rotation, to turn hydro turbines to produce power.

The Lessons of History

What can we learn from this brief history of energy? We can learn to be courageous in the cause of advancing new energy solutions because history has shown that even the most abysmal situations can be turned around. We can also take advantage of the advances that have been made, like solar power as it is used in California, even though natural phenomenon like the recent eclipse can cause minor issues. We have to learn from the past if we want to endure in our quest to improve our current energy situation despite the fact that human nature hardly ever changes. The same social pressures that Michael Faraday faced in his attempts to penetrate the upper-class crust of British science and the same financial treachery that J.P. Morgan leveraged to quell the free-energy discoveries of Nicolas Tesla are also part of the story of each of us in the energy industry who are striving to make the future more promising for humanity.

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