© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Two Centuries Of Energy In America, In Four Graphs

Until well into the 19th century, if you lived in the U.S. and wanted to heat your house, fire your forge, or whatever, you did what people had done for thousands of years: You chopped down a tree and burned it.

It wasn't until the rise of the railroads in the mid 19th-century that coal became a significant energy source in this country. As industrialization continued in the second half of the century, the use of coal continued to rise, powering heavy industry (think U.S. Steel), heating urban homes, and generating electric power.

The 20th century (the first three quarters of it, anyway) was the age of the internal combustion engine — and, by extension, the age of oil. We still get more energy from oil than from any other source, and most of that oil winds up in cars and trucks and, to a lesser extent, planes and trains.

Natural gas came in in a big way after World War II, heating homes and generating electricity. (There also were, and are, a bunch of industrial uses for natural gas.)

The energy shock of the 1970s, which drove up the price of both oil and natural gas, ended the 200-year-long rise in per capita energy use — not just during the shock, but for decades after, as energy efficiency continued to improve.

Population growth meant that total energy use kept increasing, though.

The spike in oil prices in the first decade of the 21st century, combined with a massive recession, drove down per capita oil use even more. In the past few years, as natural gas got a lot cheaper, power companies started using more gas and less coal — a trend that is expected to continue.

And that's basically the history of energy use in America — except for those other little lines down at the bottom of the chart.

One of those lines is nuclear power. Perhaps the most striking thing about nuclear power is that, despite the fact that it's been decades since a new power plant was commissioned in this country, nuclear power has persisted. In fact, it's increased a bit, as output from existing plants has increased.

Also down at the bottom are hydroelectric power (dams that generate electricity) and other renewables (solar, wind, etc.). Though renewables have risen sharply in the past few years, they still represent a tiny fraction of the energy used in this country.

In putting together this post, we spoke with energy experts James Hamilton of UCSD and Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba. Also, see this world energy timeline from Daniel Yergin.

Notes on the data: Energy data are in 10-year intervals between 1775 and 1845, in five year intervals between 1845 and 1949, and annually since then. Census data for the U.S. Population are in 10-year intervals between 1790 and 1900 and annually since then.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.
Lam Thuy Vo