Energy Careers Background
For most of human history, fire was the main source of energy. Wood, charcoal, then coal provided fuel for fire. Over the years, however, people have acquired a more sophisticated knowledge of fuels and energy. This has resulted in the development of atomic energy, as well as new methods of accessing, storing, and utilizing a variety of resources, including petroleum, coal, natural gas, and water.
The natural gas industry established itself in the early 19th century. In Britain, the first gas company was founded in 1812. The first American company opened in Baltimore in 1817. However, the oil rush of 1859 and the introduction of the electric light in 1879 thwarted the natural gas industry. Gas lights had been more effective and easier to use than kerosene lamps, but electric lighting became even more popular. Though used less and less for lighting, gas was still the primary fuel for cooking and even today maintains a share of that market.
When huge reserves of natural gas were discovered in the Southwest in the early 1900s, the production of natural gas increased to 800 billion cubic feet a year. Further increases in the production of natural gas have been dependent on the development of pipelines that carry the gas to potential market areas.
Other energy sources were also investigated during the 19th century. The internal combustion engine, patented in 1838, set the stage for gasoline’s popularity as a fuel.
Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir built a single-cylinder engine in 1860, and by 1865, 400 copies of it were being used in Paris to power such machines as printing presses and water pumps. German inventors built some of the first two- and four-cylinder combustion engines, fueled by gasoline and used to power vehicles.
With the development of the automobile, the demand for gasoline grew dramatically. World War II further increased the dependence on gasoline and other petroleum products by creating a demand for fuel for tanks, ships, and other wartime vehicles. This stimulated the need for exploration of a large number of oil wells across the country.
By the 1970s, the demand for oil had increased to the extent that Western nations could no longer supply enough oil to meet their own needs and were forced to import it from Middle Eastern countries. When these Middle Eastern countries gained control over the quantity and the price of oil being sold, they formed a cartel, known as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which became one of the major influences on the world economy during this period.
To combat the influence of OPEC, Great Britain, the United States, and other oil-producing countries increased domestic production in order to reduce the world’s dependence on oil from the OPEC nations. OPEC was forced to reduce prices and lost its control of the oil market. However, on the domestic market, greater availability of oil and gas products resulted in lower prices and decreased profits for the energy companies.
The exploration, production, and delivery of energy extracts a large price from the environment. The grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince Edward Sound in 1989 resulted in one of the largest oil spills in history and remains North America’s worst environmental disaster ever. The damaged ship dumped 10 million gallons of crude oil into clear, clean water, killing thousands of birds, fish, and mammals, destroying the area’s fishing industry, and causing a national uproar. In just two weeks, the oil spill extended along the Alaskan shoreline at a distance equal to the entire coastal length of the state of California.
The energy companies’ desire to drill for oil in Alaska’s huge Arctic Wildlife Refuge continues to meet with great opposition from environmental groups and others who wish to preserve the pristine condition of this area, which serves as an important habitat for artic animals and birds. Oil and gas exploration and extraction alter the environment, and among the challenges facing energy producers is the development of techniques for reducing alterations and damage to the environment created by the drilling, refining, transporting, and burning of fossil fuels. Another challenge is to find more efficient ways to use nonrenewable energy sources and to harness energy from renewable sources, such as the sun, wind, and sea.
Until the 1930s, hydroelectric power was responsible for providing most electricity because hydroplants were less expensive to operate than those that relied on thermal energy released by burning fuels like coal. Today, hydroelectric plants, which are often located at river dams, are just one source among many for generating energy. Hydropower supplies about 10 percent of our nation’s energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Nuclear energy has played an important role in the energy industry since World War II, when the first atomic bombs were exploded. As the focus of nuclear engineering after the war grew to include nonviolent uses for atomic energy, nuclear reactors were built to propel naval vessels and to produce electric power. There are more than 100 nuclear power plants operating in the United States.
However, several serious accidents at large nuclear reactors, specifically Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, have provoked widespread fear about the dangers of radioactive contamination. In addition, nuclear wastes produced by these and other facilities must be carefully managed, and there is much conflict among government officials, taxpayers, and residents about where and how the waste should be disposed.
In the future, utility companies will no longer be monopolies. This is driven by three major factors: a significant drop in the cost of solar and wind power (in the latter case, a decrease of 80 percent in the last 15 years), a rise in consumer environmental awareness, and the gradual emergence of a deregulated electricity market. Consumers will be able to choose their energy source. Renewable energies, such as geothermal, bioenergy, solar power, and wind energy, will provide new options for many people concerned about the environment and conserving natural resources.