In the earliest days of the nation, energy policy was pretty simple: everyone burned wood, and the main issue was finding more of it. Water power was also essential, driving mills and making both flour production and basic manufacturing more efficient. In the 1800s, fossil fuels gradually took over the market, bringing convenience, efficiency, and some challenges – like pollution and climate change – that wouldn’t be fully recognized for decades to come.
Coal fueled the American Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s, powering trains and steamships and providing kerosene, which was the first general substitute for whale oil in oil lamps. In the spring of 1859, Edwin Drake of the Seneca Oil Company became the first American to drill for oil. His Titusville, Pennsylvania project suffered so many setbacks, it became known as “Drake’s Folly.” But after drilling six days a week through the whole summer, Drake’s team finally met with success on August 28. The resulting oil was promptly stored in a bathtub, and the Pennsylvania Oil Rush, to be followed by the more famous Texas Oil Rush of the early 1900s, was on.
The rise of fossil fuels was an essential part of America's industrial and economic might in the 20th century. A new player, nuclear power, entered the market in the 1950s. Advocates promised nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter,” while opponents pointed out the long radioactive half-life of nuclear waste and the difficulty of evacuating residents during a disaster. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested at reactor construction sites in New Hampshire and California. Meanwhile, the US was hit by energy crises in 1973 and 1979, sparked by events in the Middle East. Energy conservation became a prominent issue, and solar energy, biomass, and wind power began to emerge as alternatives to fossil fuels.
In the 1980s, scientists grew increasingly concerned that human use of fossil fuels was contributing to dangerous changes in the world’s climate. In recent years a majority of experts and a majority of the American public have come to support this view. But neither the U.S. – Earth’s top energy consumer – nor the rest of the world have come close to reaching a consensus on how to stop global warming.
1748 Commercial coal production begins in the US near Richmond, Virginia.
1752 Benjamin Franklin discovers that lightning is electricity, leading to the development of electricity as a power source.
1878 Thomas Edison forms the Edison Electric Light Company, paving the way for electricity to become a major force in US households.
1950 Fueled by the popularity of cars, oil becomes America’s biggest source of energy.
1953 Bell Laboratories develops the modern photovoltaic (solar) energy cell.
1957 First US commercial nuclear power plant opens in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.
1973 An embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sparks an energy crisis.
1977 President Jimmy Carter signs the bill creating the US Department of Energy.
1979 Second energy crisis precipitated by the Iranian Revolution.
1979 First global conference on climate change held in Geneva.
1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion leads to world's worst nuclear disaster to date.
1997 Kyoto Protocol on carbon dioxide reduction signed.
2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit explodes, leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months.
2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.
2011 President Obama and US automakers agree to raise vehicle fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025.