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Renewable Energy - A Historical Perspective

sources alternative fuel administration

Before the eighteenth century, most energy came from renewable sources. People burned wood for heat, used sails to harness the wind and propel boats, and installed water wheels on streams to grind grain. The large-scale shift to nonrenewable energy sources began in the 1700s with the Industrial Revolution, a period marked by the rise of factories, first in Europe and then in North America. As demand for energy grew, coal replaced wood as the main fuel. Coal was the most efficient fuel for the steam engine, one of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution.

Until the early 1970s most Americans were unconcerned about the sources of the nation's energy. Supplies of coal and oil, which together provided more than 90% of U.S. energy, were believed to be plentiful. The decades preceding the 1970s were characterized by cheap gasoline and little public discussion of energy conservation.

That carefree approach to energy consumption ended in the 1970s. A fuel oil crisis made Americans more aware of the importance of developing alternative sources of energy to supplement and perhaps eventually even replace fossil fuels. In major cities throughout the United States, gasoline rationing became commonplace, lower heat settings for offices and living quarters were encouraged, and people waited in line to fill their gas tanks. In a country where mobility and personal transportation were highly valued, the oil crisis was a shocking reality for many Americans. As a result, the administration of President Jimmy Carter encouraged federal funding for research into alternative energy sources.

In 1978 the U.S. Congress passed the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA; PL 95-617), which was designed to help the struggling alternative energy industry. The act exempted small alternative producers from state and federal utility regulations and required existing local utilities to buy electricity from them. The renewable energy industries responded by growing rapidly, gaining experience, improving technologies, and lowering costs. This act was the single most important factor in the development of the commercial renewable energy market.

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan decided that private-sector financing for the short-term development of alternative energy sources was better than public-sector financing. As a result, he proposed the reduction or elimination of federal expenditures for alternative energy sources. Although funds were severely cut, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) continued to support some research and development to explore alternate sources of energy. President Bill Clinton's administration reemphasized the importance of renewable energy and increased funding in several areas. The George W. Bush administration believed that renewable and alternative fuels offer hope for the future but also considered that only a small portion of America's energy needs as of the early 2000s were offset by renewables. The Bush administration supported funding for research and development in renewable technologies and tax credits for the purchase of hybrid and fuel cell cars.

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