A History of the American Energy System In One Chart

Long-time Slashdot reader BoredStiff writes:

An energy Sankey diagram [where the width of arrows is proportional to flow rates] was published today by the University of Chicago, and shows the history of the American energy system in chart form, from 1800 to 2019.
The Atlantic explains:It is the first attempt to put so much information about U.S. energy history in one place. This particular Sankey diagram shows the inputs and outputs for the U.S. energy system, measured in watts per capita. The left side of the chart shows where energy is coming from (coal, natural gas, or petroleum) and the right side shows what it’s being used for (transportation, agriculture, or home lighting and heating)…

[I]t has a lot to teach us about how the energy system got to be the way it is today — and how it might change, and be made to change, in the future… The half century from 1800 to 1850 saw the country devour biomass, most of it in the form of firewood and animal feed. In the 1870s, biomass gave way to the first fossil fuels: coal and, to a lesser extent, petroleum… By the 1910s, coal was dominant… In the 1920s, it began to fade from the economy, replaced by natural gas, electricity, and — in the transportation sector — petroleum (in the form of gasoline). This was the age of cars and electrified Sun Belt suburbs — and it lasted 50 years, until the energy crisis of the 1970s arrived and capped energy use. Since 1973, per capita energy use hasn’t increased.

In recent years, you can see natural gas driving out coal from the electricity sector. It was getting a handle on that change, actually, that led the project’s leader to start working on it in the first place. “The changes that are happening in the electricity sector now — changes that are as large as any energy transition we’ve seen — are difficult to grasp… without animating the data,” Elisabeth Moyer, an atmospheric-chemistry professor at the University of Chicago who created the project, told me…

Emily Grubert, an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, noted that nearly all of the transitions depicted were accidental or the result of market forces. It’s possible that the transition to zero-carbon energy could be faster, she said, because it will be intentional.

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