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Defining Events

In the history of every industry, there are well-known events that shaped it and formed it into what it is today. Many of these relate to the invention or refinement of technology, but some relate to world events and the laws and regulations that changed the way the industry operated or was viewed. In the energy industry, these events include technological breakthroughs, government regulations, and the discoveries that led to alternative energy sources such as solar energy and wind energy.

The 18th and 19th Centuries: Discovering Energy Sources

One of the energy industry’s first defining moments is Benjamin Franklin’s famous experiment with his kite and a key in 1752. Franklin wanted to prove that static electricity and lightning were one and the same thing. The experiment took place on a stormy afternoon in June in Philadelphia. The 46-year-old Franklin enlisted the assistance of his son, William. They tied the key at the end of his kite and then extended a wire from the key into a Leyden jar, capable of storing electrical charges. As history shows, his experiment was a success, and this new understanding of electricity paved the way for modern power.

Solar energy was also investigated during this time. People learned thousands of years ago to channel the sun’s rays and deflect them using magnifying glasses, but one of the first pivotal moments for solar energy was when Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure created what he called “hot boxes.” In 1767, de Saussure built five glass boxes of varying sizes that could be stacked inside each other. He exposed them to the sun for several hours and then measured the interior temperature of each one. He later used this equipment to cook food.

More than 100 years later, around 1875, Great Britain became the first country to commercialize the use of natural gas. Natural gas companies generated the gas from coal, which was used to light houses and streetlights. In 1879, German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered uranium and named it after the planet Uranus, marking the earliest origins of the nuclear power industry.

Developments in each of the leading industry sectors continued in the 19th century. For example, manufactured natural gas (as opposed to naturally occurring gas) was first used in the United States in 1816 to light the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. And in 1839, a French scientist named Edmond Becquerel conducted an experiment with an electrolytic cell that consisted of two metal electrodes in a solution that was a good conductor of electricity. His experiment identified the photovoltaic effect, which eventually led to photovoltaic cells used in solar energy systems.

Presaging the petroleum energy industry, Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1859. It was considered a huge producing well at the time, and its oil was mainly used for kerosene and in kerosene lamps. But it opened the door for later use of oil to warm homes and fuel motor vehicles. After Drake’s first well, oil began to be refined, and by the late 1800s it was used for lighting and heating. John D. Rockefeller started investing in oil refining in Cleveland in 1863 and within nine years controlled 21 of the 26 refineries in the city. Rockefeller wanted his products to be made according to his standards, and he wanted it known to the buying public. So he called his company the Standard Oil Company. By 1890, Standard Oil controlled 90 percent of oil refining in the United States. The government later broke up the company, calling it a monopoly.

Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. His initial light bulb lasted a total of 40 hours. Only two years after the invention, Edison opened one of the world’s first electric power stations in 1881 on Pearl Street in Manhattan. Edison’s direct current (DC) system was designed to provide enough electricity to power 5,000 lights. Then, in June 1887, the first windmill for electricity production was built by Professor James Blyth of Anderson's College, Glasgow (now the University of Strathclyde). It took three different versions before he was able to power his home in Scotland, but once he got it right, it worked for 25 years.

1900–1950: The Modern Energy Era Begins

One of the first defining moments of the new century occurred when Henry Ford designed the Model T, which was manufactured between 1903 and 1926. The end result of this discovery was the demand for transportation fuel. What many people do not realize is that the car was originally designed to run on hemp-derived biofuel. Because there were huge supplies of crude oil at the time, however, and it was a cheap fuel source that did not have to be cultivated like hemp plants, eventually oil became the sole source of fuel for automobiles.

The solar energy industry took a step toward modern solar energy systems in 1908. William J. Bailey of the Carnegie Steel Company built a solar collector with copper coils and an insulated box. Twelve years later, the electricity industry marked an important transition. At the time, most generating plants were hydroelectric-powered, but there was also interest in utilizing coal for this purpose. The first plant to operate solely on coal was opened and began operations in 1920. In 1927, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Joe and Marcellus Jacobs opened the Jacobs Wind Electric Company, producing wind turbine generators, which were used on farms to charge batteries and power lighting.

Worried that the natural gas industry would fall under the control of a monopoly like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, the government enacted the Natural Gas Act in 1938. The Natural Gas Act imposed regulations and restrictions on the price of natural gas to protect consumers from high prices. The natural gas sector wasn’t the only one regulated during the first half of the 20th century. In 1946, the U.S. government created the Atomic Energy Commission. Its purpose was twofold: to promote and regulate nuclear power.

1950–2000: Regulation and New Energy Sources

By the second half of the 20th century, coal-based generating plants produced most of the electricity used in the United States, natural gas had become the leading source of cooking and heating fuel, and oil was king when it came to transportation. Still, research continued for both established and alternative fuel sources. For example, in 1954, scientists at Bell Labs were successful in developing the first silicon photovoltaic cell that was capable of converting enough solar energy into power that it could operate equipment in the lab.

This was a sign of things to come. By the 1970s, the United States and other western countries recognized that their supplies of oil were limited and not entirely within their control. In 1960, five leading oil-producing countries joined to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and control the price of oil. OPEC’s original five members were Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. When OPEC enacted an oil embargo against the United States in 1972, it highlighted how the nation’s dependence on foreign oil made it vulnerable. Concern over possible fuel shortages and increasingly high oil prices led to a renewed interest in alternative fuel sources. In 1972, one of the first academic research organizations devoted to the study of solar energy opened. Called the Institute of Energy Conversion, it was (and still) a part of the University of Delaware, and its mission was to develop thin-film photovoltaic and solar thermal systems.

Wind energy received a boost in 1980 when the world's first wind farm, which consisted of 20 turbines, was built in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, it was not a success due to turbine failure and other issues. Two years later, in 1982, the first megawatt-scale solar power system went online in Hesperia, California. It generated 1 megawatt of power. By the next year, solar power systems generated 21.3 megawatts, and realized sales of $250 million.

Fear of pollution and concern for the environment exerted a major influence on the energy industry. In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, a devastating oil spill occurred and damaged the environment. For many people, this marked a turning point in the urgency for finding better, cleaner energy supplies. As a result of the spill, the United States Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which prevents any oil tanker that has created a spill greater than 1 million gallons from operating in Prince William Sound.

Before the end of the century, a major shift in energy sources was underway. In the 1990s, the first natural gas-powered power plants were put into service in the United States, and the first solar power system to enter the traditional power grid came online in 1993. Built and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric, in California, it generated 500 kilowatts of power.

The Twenty-First Century: New Technologies, Battles Over Energy and Environmental Policy, and COVID-19

Technologies developed quickly and received new incentives during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many improvements were made in the energy industry. By 2002, the largest solar power plant in the northwest, the White Bluffs Solar Station, began generating 38.7 kilowatts in Richland, Washington. In April 2009, the government published the first framework for a wind energy development program. The plan included leases, easements, and rights-of-way for environmentally responsible renewable energy development activities, including the construction of offshore wind farms on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. At the same time, government regulations increasingly challenged established energy companies. In 2015, the Obama Administration released the final version of its Clean Power Plan, which established state-by-state targets for carbon emissions reductions by power plants.

A major milestone occurred in April of 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and caught fire while drilling BP’s Macondo exploration well in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed. The explosion and subsequent oil spill created a major environmental catastrophe along the Gulf Coast and led to heated debate over safety standards, government regulation, and whether or not energy companies should be allowed to drill off the coast of the United States.

In the post-Obama years, federal energy policy changed significantly based on who held the office of president and which political party controlled Congress. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November 2016 had a major effect on U.S. energy policy. The Trump administration (January 20, 2017–January 20, 2021) took a largely pro-business, pro-fossil fuel stance. In one major example of this new approach, President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017. The non-binding treaty, which was signed by nearly 200 nations, called on countries to make voluntary pledges to reduce carbon emissions in an attempt to reduce the effects of global warming. The administration also repealed the Clean Power Plan in June 2019, and replaced it with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. Environmentalists lobbied against this change, arguing that the rule was much-friendlier to utility companies and may result in increased carbon emissions due to increased fuel production, although prevailing emissions limits remained in effect. Additionally, a significant percentage of the American public had concerns about increased fossil fuel production. In fact, 60 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup in 2019 supported proposals to reduce the use of fossil fuels. (In 2023, a Gallup survey found that 58 percent of Americans surveyed were in favor of proposals to reduce the use of fossil fuels.)

Joe Biden, who won the 2020 presidential election and took office on January 20, 2021 emphasized fighting climate change, protecting the environment, and promoting the use of renewable energy. On January 19, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule, paving the way for President Biden to enact new and stronger restrictions on power plants that are unfriendly to utility companies. On his first day in office, President Biden signed the instrument to bring the United States back into the non-binding Paris Agreement. The administration-supported Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 included incentives to promote energy efficiency and domestic renewable energy industry sectors. Deloitte reports that “22 states and the District of Columbia are targeting 100 percent renewable energy or 100 percent carbon-free electricity, often through clean and renewable energy mandates and incentives, with target dates between 2040 and 2050.”

In late 2019, the coronavirus COVID-19 was detected in China and quickly spread to nearly every country causing hundreds of millions of infections, more than 7 million deaths, and massive business closures and job losses. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, energy use (especially gasoline and jet fuel, but also electricity) decreased significantly during the height of the pandemic and this, coupled with already low prices for oil and natural gas, prompted many companies to layoff a large percentage of their workforces and halt new exploration activities. Others were forced to work from home. Many fossil fuel energy companies cut costs and cancelled or delayed new projects as a result of decreasing revenue and interruptions to supply chains of raw goods (especially rare earth elements) from China and other suppliers. On the other hand, new federal laws in 2021 and 2022 prompted a much-stronger bounce back and new growth in the renewable energy sector (especially in wind and solar power). But regardless of the harmful effects of the pandemic, there will always be a need for energy, which suggests that demand for energy workers (especially those in clean energy) will continue to rebound in the next several years.