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A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Say what you will about federal energy policy in the U.S., you have to give credit to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency (EIA).

In my experience spending endless hours looking for energy consumption, production, price, fuel types, trends, outlooks, predictions (you get the idea) statistics, no other organization has been more of a one stop shop than the EIA. The next best resources are distant second and thirds (BP statistical review and the IEA). To my knowledge, no other country or organization makes access to invaluable energy statistics as easy or as readily available as the EIA. In fact, I could spend some time criticizing other governments (mostly my government) for not providing resources that even come close to the EIA’s. I once emailed Stats Canada (the keeper of Canadian stats) for a report that they published on transportation trends and they actually wanted to charge me for it! Having to pay for an IEA report is one thing, to my knowledge my taxes don’t fund their reports, but having to pay twice for a simple Stats Canada report? Anyway, I digress.

The point that I want to make from the above is that I appreciate the EIA and all that they do. If you look hard enough (and I did), they can also provide a good history lesson. I scrounged up energy consumption statistics in the U.S., by fuel type, dating back to 1635 (and since 1949). To be sure, there must have been a fair bit of estimating going on, considering that the Department of Energy, as we know it today, was only created in 1977, not to mention the U.S. didn’t actually become a country until 1781. Of course, the breakdown of fuels way back then wasn’t too interesting, instead of using coal, petroleum products and nuclear energy, energy before the 19th century came mostly from burning wood. At this point I should put in a disclaimer: whale oils were used back then for lighting but the EIA doesn’t seem to include these stats. In Amory Lovins’ report (Winning the oil endgame), his research revealed that roughly 30 million gallons of whale oil was produced in 1821. This sounds a bit too high to me (on a side note, does anybody know approximately what the energy density of whale oil would be?).

So, how did the settlers live 218 years ago (since the first U.S. census)? Amazingly, as Figure 1 shows, with roughly the same energy intensity (energy consumption/person) as the average Italian lives today!

Figure 1. U.S. energy consumption per person

Again, I intend to emphasize energy intensity in upcoming columns, but needless to say, this finding surprised me. There is still some ambiguity here since I’m not sure exactly how this energy was used back then, a good guess is that it’s mostly for heat. Also, it’s a good bet that the efficiency of your typical energy conversion device in the 17-1800’s has improved somewhat today. But the fact that Italie's human development index is 0.941, compared to U.S.'s HDI of 0.951, yet Italians manage to consume roughly the same amount of energy per person as an American did 218 years ago is quite impressive.

In 1790, the first US census revealed 3.9 million people living in the United States of America, and the EIA estimates that they consumed 0.47 Quadrillion Btu’s, entirely from wood biomass. As Figure 2 shows, coal didn’t register until 1850, petroleum until 1860, natural gas until 1885, hydro in 1890 and the first electron consumed at the hands of Americans from nuclear power came in 1958.

Figure 2. Total U.S. energy consumption

Clearly energy consumption increased quickly since the 1900’s and there was no looking back once oil was discovered. How else was the Ford Model T supposed to run in 1907? Oh yeah - they did have battery electric vehicles back then too. Since the end of the 2nd World War and the birth of the suburbs, petroleum has dominated energy consumption and its share of primary energy has increased quickly from 2.4% in 1900 peaking at 47% in 1977 and since the 1980’s has stabilized to around 40%.

The next question would be, how long can it continue? You’ll notice that my chart goes up to 2027, those are the Department of Energy predictions. The fact that they see oil maintaining exactly a 39% share between now and 2027 tells me that they may have taken a simplistic approach to their predictions. So, what does the future hold? As I think Figure 3 shows for certain, year on year growth in energy consumption cannot continue indefinitely. 1000 years from now, will people look at this graph and see a blip that was fossil fuel consumption around the year 2000? The chart below shows the only 3 possibilities: 1) a plateau of energy consumption 2) a crash and plateau and 3) a bad crash and a plateau.

Figure 3. Possible energy consumption scenarios

The good news though is that even if energy consumption levels in the U.S. fall from where they are now, to where they were 218 years ago in the U.S., it'll still be possible to maintain a standard of living as relaxed as your average Italian.

Re: A short history of energy (in the US)

Dear Ben,
Glad that you are back "in business" again!

I have been following most of your podcast and I have learned a lot.

One key dicussion that has been going on is what will happen when we "peak" with Oil. Many say that we need not to worry since we can always fall back on coal for some time (liquid coal for instance). There seems to be a common consensus that we have enought coal to last for one or several centuries. ( But I just came across this article in New Scientist and there might be some simular issues around the way countires/companies reports the reserves as with oil and that we might be facing a hubbert coal peak pretty soon as well. ( Might be worth checking out more in detail?

Wish you all the best,

Re: A short history of energy (in the US)

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the comments. I hope to do a podcast interview about gasification of coal which has many applications like making diesel fuel from coal (Germany did a lot of this during WW2). It's definitely something that will happen, and is happening right now. The questions are: 1) what do we do with all the CO2? 2) can we build gasification plants quickly enough? And of course 3) how much coal is there?

I have heard lots of claims about coal reserves...I think George Bush once said during a state of the union address that there is millions of years of coal available (he didn't mean to say millions). I've heard anything from 150-300 years. The trouble is, every single estimate that I've come across says 150-300 years of coal left at current consumption. Of course, coal is the fastest growing fuel right now, and doing some simple math, if you include the fact that coal's growth rate is say, 5% per year (meaning every year we consume 5% more coal than the year before), the 300 years of coal left at current consumption drops to less than half that. Also, apparently there's a lot of coal factored into those reserves that we can't actually use right now (according to the book Big Coal).

The one thing about coal reserves though is that it's not as if we've actually had to go out looking for coal, or at least not in the same way we've looked for oil. Coal has always just been there. It's possible that if somebody went out looking for coal, we could come up with more.

Re: A short history of energy (in the US)

PS. That article from New Scientist looks good...I don't have a subscription for it though.

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Hello Ben,

I have another topic that is close to my heart: Carbon offsetting schemes. I have had a hunch for some time now that these offsetting are at best SLIGHTLY beneficial and at worst fraudulent and dangerous.
- Fraudulent since it is almost impossible to control.
- Dangerous since it creates a general public feeling of lack of urgency to change their behavior. "I have already offset my CO2 footprint so why should I have to suffer even more...".
An analogy might be the indulgence letters the Catholic Church sold to people who had "sinned" in the 16th century. (Indulgences involved payment in coin to a priest for the purpose of relief from guilt of sins, release from purgatory and assurance of a place in heaven.)

Look for instance at on how Volkswagen tries to make people feel good about buying one of their gas or diesel drinking cars(be it with less drinking ability then most American brands). Their online calculator suggests that I can offset a VW Passat with a v6 driving 15'000 miles per year creating 6 tons of CO2 with a yearly offset fee of only 33 USD. This scheme just makes VW look greener then they actually are(by the way: What about the CO2 it took to produce the car?). It sounds too good to be true. It is not mandatory, and it is highly unlikely that they can really offset all CO2 at this cost for many people (say millions) and that it will really bind this CO2.
1. Offset does not reduce emissions.
2. It is difficult to calculate. Dan Welch wrote: CO2 credits are “an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened.” 
3. There is often a significant time lag. Burn today and hope that a tree planted today will absorb my today’s emission in many years from now.
4. It reduces the political pressure to change and makes people go in the wrong direction.
5. It does not address the issue of taking inactive carbon below the surface to become integrated into the active biological carbon cycle. This is not a zero sum game. The more carbon you inject into the active system the more you have in it in total. I guess that the only way to counter this it to either:
- Pump CO2 deep into the ground (not into the sea: a-The sea is already showing signs of being saturated of CO2, b-It make the sea more acid and thereby kills off extremely sensitive planktons and small shellfish that is the foundation to all life in the sea. Ref: )
- Take full grown trees, plants etc. and dump it deep into the ground to take it out from the normal biological cycle. (Would that work?)

My whole point of this, rather long, text was to point to a very interesting document that I came across: . It analyses some key issues associated with Carbon Offsetting Schemes. The bottom line is that we should be extremely carefully letting these “scams” or schemes grow without seriously question them and let people understand that this does not solve the issue of CO2 emissions!


Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)


Whilst I can agree with some of your comments - certainly that efficient low carbon activities & processes should be the primary focus. I am am in favor of carbon anaylsis and offsetting. Offsetting is a good mechanism once emission are efficient and as low as possible.

Comprehensive greenhouse gas analysis can help enable emissions reduction strategies and raise awareness. Indeed people/companies are often ignorant on what are the main contributions to their carbon footprint. People often focus on transport, but carbon footprint is far more extensive. The manufacture of consumables such as paper can often be significant.

Retail of properly certified carbon credits can enable a flow of money to renewable technologies and to maintain forest coverage.

In response to your Summary:
1. No but analysis of a carbon footprint can enable strategies to reduce emissions.
2. Carbon credits can be calculate - a simple mass balance. Ok some arguments over factors and time periods, but nothing is ever perfect.
3. Trees are not the only credit. i.e. Wind farms can also generate credits. But I think it is positive to plant trees.
4. I disagree. It increases peoples awareness and put a price on releasing carbon.
5. I like your point the fact that it not a zero end game, the tree/plant idea would work certainly not work unless you massive surplus electricity to power and manufacture robots to dig holes and collect trees (Only hope is that we discover Nuclear Fusion).

My conclusion, you should be more positive about the carbon offsetting, it is certainly a step forward.



Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Hello Stephen,

Thank you for your interesting reply. In short, I think we both have a point.
You are right that carbon offsetting brings more awareness to people about carbon emissions. However there will also be a counter effect: My point is that that people will buy offsetting credits instead of changing the way they live. This will surely become unsustainable quite quickly. It does not scale very well (just do some math). Combine this with my concern that some/many offsetting schemes are either inefficient, with a great time-lag or fraudulent.
You clearly have a point that it can be an efficient way to funnel money to environmentally projects that (hopefully) are CO2 offsetting.
I acknowledge that there are many schemes that are beneficial such as funding of new wind mills and solar power plants. We need to have a transparent and scientifically well thought through system in place that makes it easier for people to choose the right scheme and avoid the bad ones. Proper and deep scientifically analysis is important. Examples of initial flawed scientific or political assumptions are bio-fuel, such as US corn. Furthermore a recent survey has shown that not only are many bio-fuels inefficient but many bio fuels production sites "leak" more CO2 from the ground when transformed into bio-fuel agricultural area. See:

My last point (5) is something I know too little about to be able to expand on but adding carbon to the bio-cycle by using coal/oil is not addressed by CO2 offsetting. The sea is already starting to be saturated by CO2 and it is probably impossible to really bind all added co2 in new biomass that is then kept locked in.

My bottom line is that I am not against CO2 offsetting schemes, but I want to highlight several long term issues associated with it. People and politicians need to understand that this is not a permanent solution.
“It is just a small band-aid on a big bleeding wound.”


Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Here is a youtube video related to coal production and consumption. (Dr. Albert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Physics, University of Boulder Colorado talking about Peak Oil and Population Growth from a mathematics perspective.)

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Ah, yes, I've seen this lecture. It's quite interesting talking about what exponential growth actually means. I suppose the trouble is predicting the growth rate, although those predictions do exist and still people tend to report reserves that are X tons at current consumption.

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Barack Obama on Energy and the Environment:

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

I really liked this part of your article: "This sounds a bit too high to me (on a side note, does anybody know approximately what the energy density of whale oil would be?). "

So, from a bit of web searching about whales, in an effort to answer question 2, the average "oil take" from a whale (fin whale) was some 20 to 30 bbls ( ) = 840 to 1260 gallons per whale. This is about 23,000 to 38,000 whales per season seems higher than historic data suggest by some 4 to 5 times for 1821 ( from ).

If I knew the answer to question 2 I could put some time and effort into a much more compelling engineering/economics question: how many miles per whale (mpw?!) my car gets (if I owned one). I suppose that bit of scientific research has too low a value to get some US government money to go whale hunting this weekend. Maybe the Japanese already know and are not telling because it is SUPER high energy content and that is their secret ingredient to ultra high efficiency luxury hybrid SUVs for the US market! (The petrol would get slowly leaked onto the road as you drive creating the illusion of burning it so as not to upset the masses that are sensitive to that kind of thing).

Regarding the whole debate about how energy consumption will go: this should be left where it belongs: in economic research departments (preferably next door to the politics research department so they get an accurate source of input data). If you want to buy USD200/gallon gasoline the oil companies will happily sell you as much as you want, and likely give you a tree to take home and plant as a promotional item so you can feel like you are contributing to a carbon neutral world (just don't use it for fire wood in 20 years, make a desk or something as Daniel suggests). Since carbon capture is all about growth rate (and apparently Stephan's nuclear powered robots), sorry Daniel, plants actually use CO2 all the time not just in the future, may I suggest the give-away-plants be poplars or pines? Oak and redwoods would be poor choices I think. (By the way, Stephan, did windmill technology advance rapidly while I was reading your response and they can now convert not just kinetic energy to electricity but also magically suck up CO2 to solve that problem with out the give-away-trees? - damn it was such a good idea too!)

The thing I'm going to miss when we run out of economically extractable petroleum ("rock oil") is plastic. I really like Gore-Tex (R) (bio-plastics not withstanding), which I'll need for all the extra rain the newly warmed world will be generating. At least the trees can provide wind-breaks and shelter from all the new super storms before the massive die-backs set in from our exponential growth rate.

One last comment: be very careful with your "How much CO2 was use to make the car?" question. How much energy did it take to make the world? I suppose you could limit yourself to DIRECT inputs and assume all the thing that made electricity generation possible for the robotic welding sprang up like little turbine-generator-making-and-rail-road-laying trees (not as fast growing as pines). If you really want do answer that questions I suggest you do the exergy calculation yourself and then ask "Why shouldn't we all kill ourselves and hasten the eventual heat death of the universe since that is the exergetically efficient thing to do?" ( ).

Just make high quality ceramic bricks out of all the CO2 (that we capture right in the car, pump out at the petrol station, and collect when we drop off more gasoline to be carted away to the brick factory) so we can all live in nicely water proof (with a bit of natural rubber sealant) very high energy efficiency houses with solar panels on top (to be not just carbon neutral, but energy neutral) which will keep us nice an cool - then we can add in all the surplus sulfur in the world to the bricks and we can all follow the yellow brick road to Oz.

And I would still like to know the energy density of whale oil too!


Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

The energy content of whale oil will be about the same as the energy content of any other animal fat: about 9 kilocalories per gram, or 38 kJ/g. That's about the same as gasoline. It's all just carbon and hydrogen, and not enough double bonds between the carbons to matter.

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

I have a basic question - do you have any sense of what a heavy load would look like? For example, if you get dugg, or you get slashdotted or you get tech-crunched on gigaom'd, what are we looking at in terms of traffic? Do you know what those loads typically look like, in terms of 'page requests per minute'?

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

With the internet growing by leaps and bounds every minute, those who capitalize on a comprehensive strategy are sure to reap the rewards for their efforts.

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)


A little bit of thinking about the US 1790 vs. modern day Italy comparison will tell you that it has to be nonsense. Modern day Italy has cars, electricity, air conditioning (they use it less than Americans, but they use it), heavy industry, etc. 1790 America had wood, horsepower, a tiny bit of water mills.

Either the 1790 US number is wrong, or the modern Italian one is wrong.

A better comparison would be a 1790 American against a modern African, where again I suspect the modern African has more energy at his disposal (think of all the cars, planes, trucks, container ships, electric lights, radios, phones, TVs in modern Africa) but the ratio would be much closer.

The Stern Review modelled this pretty closely in one of the supporting papers. There is a linear correlation between GDP per capita and energy consumption *but*:

- there are a couple of outliers (eg Japan is relatively low, Luxembourg very high)
- there are structural breaks (the curve flattens markedly) at, from memory, around $10k US/ capita and around $25k/ capita (US is about $41k/ capita from memory)

The short answer is that it's going to be the *form* of energy that we use that will change (more renewables, probably more nuclear) not the quantity (Switzerland and Japan have shown that you can make significant reductions, but human nature comes into play: Switzerland is also the country that has a 'Car Driver's Party' to fight restrictions on driving as well as a car culture. The rebound effect on conservation is significant.

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Classical mechanics distinguishes between potential energy, which is a function of the position of an object, and kinetic energy, which is a function of its movement.

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

Never have I seen a fundraiser see a community come together so thoroughly, and so generously. The cause is clearly worth it, I mean, what better cause than saving a human life......

Re: A Short History of Energy (in the US)

For your consideration here are your current:

Oil Facts

Sources U.s Geo Survey - U.S Energy Info Admin - Bureau of Land Mang - Dept of inter Oil & Gas Journal

Saudi Arabia holds the worlds largest oil reserve. The U.S holds the world's 12th largest oil reserve but we are the world's 3rd largest producer of oil. We produce about 8 million barrels a day. The U.S is the world's largest consumer of oil, China is the second largest. We consume about 20 million barrels a day. The U.S appetite for oil is so huge that it dwarfs China's consumption. Even with China's massive 1.3 billion person population they consume a modest 7.2 millions barrels a day.
What are we doing with all this oil? 69% is used for transportation, 24% is used by Industry, 5% is used by residential and commercial and 2% is used for electrical power.
Where do we get the oil we use? Canada is our largest provider of oil, next is Saudi Arabia then Mexico.
There are only two places in the U.S where we are not allowed to drill; The first is about half of the Eastern Great Basin (the area of concern is half of Nevada & most of Utah). We are not allowed to drill on about half of it because some of the Native American tribes who call it home object to it. The second is Alaska's North coast - we actually do drill there but most of it is protected as a National Wildlife Refuge.
As of 2006 we had over 500,000 oil wells pumping 24/7 for us and that number has increased since then.

So why is the price of oil so high? That depends on who you talk to. A very simple answer is supply and demand, Fox news loves this meaningless response. Personally, I would look at the commodity traders. Remember what they did with electricity in California in 2000 - 2001. Remember Enron. Don't be sad

Buck Up!

Feeling sad about the price of oil? Don't worry we've weathered these gas storms before, every decade or so we get one, but sooner or later fuel prices will begin to fall and then stabilize ---- and when they do I'm buying the biggest, fattest Hummer you ever did saw!
Yea Haw!!

I'm only kiddin about that last part - I know that people who rely on transportation for their living are really hurting and that is a shame. I just don't think that drilling for more oil is really going to help. Remember, we are currently the world's 3rd largest producer of oil and its barely enough to supply 1/3 of our demand. I believe that the only real solution is to decrease our dependency on oil.

Let's not fall back into the oil trap.

Take Heart.

We are the biggest, toughest and most forward thinking country in the whole world, the solutions can not be as impossible as we are making them out to be. One man who has some great ideas is Billionaire Oil Tycoon T. Boone Pickens. Do an internet search and see what he says. Heck, even the Exxon Mobil heirs, The Rockefellers, believe that we should turn away from fossil fuels and create a cleaner, more dependable source of energy.

Impossible you say---Nothing is impossible for the greatest nation on earth!!!

Good Luck and God Bless