Energy is essential to life. Living creatures draw on energy flowing through the environment and convert it to forms they can use. The most fundamental energy flow for living creatures is the energy of sunlight, and the most important conversion is the act of biological primary production, in which plants and sea-dwelling phytoplankton convert sunlight into biomass by photosynthesis. The Earth's web of life, including human beings, rests on this foundation.

The United States has always been a resource-rich nation, but in 1776, the year the Nation declared its independence from Great Britain, nearly all energy was still supplied by muscle power and fuelwood. America's vast deposits of coal and petroleum lay untapped and mostly undiscovered, although small amounts of coal were used to make coke, vital for casting the cannon that helped win the war. Mills made use of waterpower, and of course the wind enabled transport by ship.

Fuel wood use continued to expand in parallel with the Nation's economic growth, but chronic shortages of energy in general encouraged the search for other sources. During the first 30 years or so of the 19th century, coal began to be used in blast furnaces and in making coal-gas for illumination. Natural gas also found limited application in lighting during the period. Even electricity sought a niche; for example, experiments were conducted with battery-powered electric trains in the 1840s and 1850s. Still, muscle power remained an important source of energy for decades. Although a number of mechanical innovations appeared, including the cotton gin and the mechanical reaper, they had the effect of multiplying the productivity of human and animal muscle power rather than spurring the development of machine power. It was not until well after mid-century that the total work output from all types of engines exceeded that of work animals.

The westward expansion helped change that. As railroads drove west to the plains and the mountains, they left behind the fuelwood so abundant along the eastern seaboard. Coal became more attractive, both because deposits were often found near the new railroad rights of way and because its higher energy content increased the range and load of steam trains. Demand for coal also rose because the railroads were laying thousands of miles of new track and the metals industry needed an economical source of coke to make iron and steel for the rails and spikes. The transportation and industrial sectors in general began to grow rapidly during the latter half of the century, and coal helped fuel their growth.

Petroleum got its start as an illuminant and ingredient in patent medicines and did not catch on as a fuel for some time. At the end of World War I, coal still accounted for about 75 percent of U.S. total energy use. About the same time, the horse and mule population reached 26 million and then went into permanent decline. The beginning of the transition from muscle power was over.

America's appetite for energy as it industrialized was prodigious, roughly quadrupling between 1880 and 1918. Coal fed much of this growth, while electricity expanded in applications and total use alike. Petroleum got major boosts with the discovery of Texas's vast Spindletop Oil Field in 1901 and with the advent of mass-produced automobiles, several million of which had been built by 1918.

In the years after World War II, "Old King Coal" relinquished its place as the premier fuel in the United States. The railroads lost business to trucks that ran on gasoline and diesel fuel, and also began switching to diesel locomotives themselves. Labor troubles and safety standards drove up coal production costs. The declining demand for natural gas as an illuminant forced that industry to look for other markets, and because heating applications had obvious potential, natural gas replaced coal in many household ranges and furnaces. The coal industry survived, however, mainly because nationwide electrification created new demand for coal among electric utilities despite regional competition from hydroelectric and petroleum-fired generation.

Most energy produced today in the United States, as in the rest of the industrialized world, comes from fossil fuels--coal, natural gas, crude oil, and natural gas plant liquids. Although U.S. energy production takes many forms, fossil fuels together far exceed all other sources of energy. In 2000 they accounted for 80 percent of total energy production and were valued at an estimated $148 billion (nominal dollars).

- From "Energy in the United States: 1635-2000," U.S. Department of Energy
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[Last Updated: 9/16/2010]
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