In the 21st century, power is one of the most important resources available to us. Modern life is largely reliant on a myriad of devices and machines which make our lives easier and more productive. From our computers, to our lights, to our cars, our communication, our news, and our military, nearly every part of modern society is reliant on these machines. However, they all require power. Machines and devices are all tools which convert power into work.
A Bit of Background Info
The types of power used by our modern tools varies wildly. Some, such as computers and home appliances are powered by electricity. The electrical grid allows for all connected households to draw electrical power off of the nationwide network. Others, such as most cars, use petroleum products, such as gasoline or diesel. Other parts of our power distribution systems turn one type of energy into another, most commonly creating electricity. Things like nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, and coal burning power plants all use one type of fuel in order to produce electricity, which can then be used for any number of purposes.
One important thing to remember is that power is only somewhat fungible. While one type of power can be converted into any other, there will always be losses. For example, electricity flowing downhill can be used to turn turbines, and create electricity. However, if this electricity is used to pump water back uphill, you wont be able to pump as much water back uphill as was used to generate the power in the first place. This is because some of the power will be lost, often as heat, by the machines involved in storing and using the power.
U.S. Power Consumption
Perhaps the first major power source in the U.S. was lumber. Wood can be burned, causing a chemical reaction that releases large amounts of energy. Historically, this was used to do things like warm homes, cook meals, and otherwise generate heat. However, most areas in the U.S are located somewhat near forested areas, and could therefore take care of their own energy needs easily. Additionally, the consumption of lumber as an energy source does not require much in the way of sophisticated technology or processing.
However, by the 1850s, people were starting to understand how to extract oil from the earth, and how useful it was as a fuel source. While electricity was known, it was not widely known, used, or understood. The second half of the 19th century was notable for the oil boom, where companies like Standard Oil capitalized on the massive surge in demand for oil. People began using oil products for things like lighting and industrial endeavors. Eventually, when the automobile became a hugely popular product and spread across the country, oil products became the de facto fuel.
But by the early 20th century, a new type of power began to spread. Pioneers such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla shocked the world with their electrically powered products. Edison’s light bulb in particular captured public interest, and soon power companies were producing and distributing electricity. It was in this time that we saw the precursors of the modern electrical grid.
The rest of the 20th century was a never-ending series of technological innovations. Flight, advancements in industrial technology, and changes in the average household meant that more and more industries were clamoring for power at an ever increasing rate. And in the rush for better, cheaper power, there were many pitfalls. For example, lead was added to gasoline as a way to cheaply increase its power. Unfortunately, it took decades before we realized that the lead was accumulating in toxic levels, and causing permanent damage to individuals who had grown up around roadways and in polluted areas. Some social scientists even connect the proliferation of leaded gasoline technology to a few waves of crime. Other such power related mishaps include nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl, and the political difficulties caused by an overdependence on oil.
It is difficult to predict exactly how the future will turn out in terms of power consumption. Most expect that as the world develops, more and more demand for power will lead to increased demand, although others are hopeful that innovations in production, efficiency, and storage could create a future where all have access to cheap, clean power. For example, the industrialization of china led to huge consumption of power, and caused a lot of pollution. However, modern china is drastically reducing their emissions and focusing on efficiency in there power consumption. Perhaps other countries can learn from those who industrialized before them, and move more quickly towards sustainable and clean power consumption. Many developed countries are already offering global incentives for others who are willing to change their consumption.