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Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Hydrogen Economy Part I

Energy Transformations: A Look Back

The transition to a hydrogen economy - though it may sound implausible - isn't unprecedented. Up until the last half of the 19th century, the United States had an energy system based on animals for transportation and wood for heating and cooking. Today, energy in the form of transportation fuels and electricity has become so ubiquitous it is difficult to separate it from the function of modern society.

In the span of less than 150 years, the U.S. and much of the developed world, has successfully transitioned from wood to coal, to increasing contributions from natural gas, petroleum, hydro, nuclear energy and, most recently, renewables. 

The later transitions are more reflective of a diversification of energy resources than actual transitions. The entry of new energy resources has been driven in large part by environmental concerns, technological advances, demand and economic forces.

Until the end of the 20th century, the U.S. produced nearly all of the energy it needed. In the 1980's consumption of natural gas began to outpace domestic production so the U.S. turned to Canadian imports to make up the difference. Starting in 1994, the U.S. imported more petroleum than it produced, mostly to meet transportation demands. For electricity generation, abundant coal remains the dominant, domestic primary energy resource.

Access to energy has had unparalleled consequences socially, economically and environmentally. The industrial revolution and indeed the technological revolution would not have been possible without a reliable energy supply. But the principal energy resources of the fossil fuel economy are finite, and they produce emissions that are harmful to the environment when we use these resources to provide lighting, cooking, heating and mobility. These factors will likely be among the main drivers to bring about the next energy transition.

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