Energy, then, now and the future

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Energy has been around since the dawn of time. Of course, the first energy source was the sun, which played a fundamental part in the way humans interacted and built societies. Then came the wind and water, which helped us generate basic mills. 

Fast forward a few decades, and the Industrial Revolution came along. With it, we started developing other sources of energy, which came to be known as electricity. Most people credit Benjamin Franklin with 'discovering' electricity in 1752. However, Franklin didn't discover electricity or even perform the first experiments associated with its discovery. But he did create the lightning hypothesis and experimental conditions to prove electricity was possible. 

TIP: To find out more about the discovery of electricity, search for French physicist Thomas-Francois Dailbard. 

Then Came Coal

From around 1750, coal was used to power tools and machines during the industrial revolution. The first coal-powered steam engine was patented in 1769 by James Watt. Thanks to his machine, steam engines became more powerful and efficient – making them perfect for factories and mills.

In some way or another, coal is still being used today to generate energy, mainly because it is one of the cheapest energy sources out there. According to RP Siegel, PE, President of Rain Mountain LLC and the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, coal accounts for 40 percent of all-electric generation (down from 45 percent) and 21 percent of all energy in the U.S. 

But coal use and coal mining have a severe impact on the environment. Coal is a nonrenewable source and contains high levels of carbon dioxide. In addition, coal mining is the second-highest emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 

Not even clean coal is carbon-free. Clean coal is born from extensive research and new technologies used to reduce ash and sulfur dioxide emissions when the coal is burned. This form of cleaner coal is widely used now, and while it is better, it is not 100% clean. 

The Birth of Gas as an Energy Source

Natural gas is a fossil energy source that forms deep beneath the earth's surface; therefore, it is a nonrenewable energy resource like coal. 

In 1821, William Hart dug the first successful natural gas well in the U.S. in Fredonia, New York. Later, the Fredonia Gas Light Company was formed, becoming the first American natural gas distribution company.

However, the first commercialized natural gas occurred in Britain. In 1812 in the UK, Frederick Winsor created the first company to build public gas works and distribute gas to customers through a network of underground pipes. 

Soon Frederick's business opened up the markets for gas worldwide, transforming the everyday life of millions of people. Reliable light and heat were now available for everyone. Gas started being used to light London's streets. By 1827, London's network provided gas to almost 70,000 streetlights.

Today, natural gas is a vital component of the world's supply of energy. Natural gas currently supplies more than one-half of the energy consumed by residential and commercial customers and about 41 percent of the energy used by the U.S. industry. In addition, gas is one of the cleanest, safest, and most valuable of all energy sources. However, natural gas has methane, a contributor to greenhouse gas. 

Regardless of this, natural gas is better for the environment than other fossil fuels. While natural gas is not as clean as solar or wind energy, it is the cleanest fossil fuel source available.

Clean Energy Transition 

Many governments now realize the importance of having access to affordable clean energy and the impacts of fossil fuels on the environment. As a result, decarbonization, a rapid shift toward renewables, and more innovative energy use are now part of the world agenda. But as the United Nations suggests, we need to consider how to transition without disturbing the global job market and national energy grids. 

This is where the Sustainable Development Goals can offer us the framework to bridge the gap between the global energy issues and maintain the infrastructure that supports our lives today. For example, one of the targets for SDG #7 Affordable and Clean Energy is to increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by the year 2030. 

Renewable Energy Increase

In our previous blog post on goal 7, Clean Energy Using Earth's Gifts to Power the World, we talked about Clean Energy types and benefits. Head over to that blog post if you need to learn more about clean energy and better for the environment. 

Now transitioning the conventional energy industry, including repurposing assets and storage, is a tremendous job that needs to take place worldwide. Many governments have already started their journey to becoming net-zero. However, this will take years to accomplish. So we need you, the next generation of engineers, planners, scientists, and politicians, to step up and take over when the time comes. 

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Thinking Cap On

Net-zero refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. In other words, imagine it is like cleaning after cooking or tying your room after playing. 

How can we work toward becoming net-zero at home? Explore with your parents: how can you reduce your family's carbon footprint? Perhaps by using less energy, installing a smart thermostat at home, recycling more, and/or by creating 'carbon offset' planting trees in your garden or neighborhood. It is never too soon to start. 

Share with us on social media and let us know how you can achieve your net-zero goals.

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