Renewable Energy Debate

March 15, 2019 – Volume 29, Issue 11
Can alternative sources replace fossil fuels? By Matt Mossman


Early Electricity Research

Before the Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain in the mid-1700s and spread to the United States in the 1800s, people cooked over wood or coal fires, used animals to transport heavy loads, and ground grain into flour using wheels powered by river currents. Some of the world's poorest countries still use such methods of generating energy.

The transformation of agrarian societies into economies that used machines for manufacturing was possible because of discoveries that made coal efficient for powering steam engines. Those discoveries, notably by Scottish inventor and engineer James Watt, led to steam-powered trains and factories.58

Experimentation continued throughout the industrial era, with scientists and inventors in the United States and elsewhere working simultaneously on similar ideas.

One of the most famous experiments was Benjamin Franklin's attempt to fly a kite in a lightning storm in a Philadelphia field in 1752 to demonstrate that lightning was electrical in nature, something scientists had long suspected was true but had never proved. Franklin's kite was not actually struck by lightning, which likely would have killed him. But a bolt did come close enough to transmit an ambient electrical charge to a Leyden jar (an early device used to store high-voltage electricity), proving it was possible to capture the energy in lightning.59

Hans Christian Ørsted, a Danish physicist and chemist, discovered in 1820 that an electrical current flowing through a wire produced a magnetic field. Building on that work the following year, English scientist Michael Faraday used a small mercury bath to transform electrical energy into mechanical energy, producing the first electric motor.

In 1831, Faraday discovered that changing a magnetic field produces an electric field. That breakthrough led him to construct a dynamo, which used magnetism to convert mechanical energy into electricity. Faraday's work paved the way for making electricity practical for everyday use.60

In 1839, French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered that submerging silver chloride in an acidic solution and exposing it to sunlight while it was connected to platinum electrodes created an electric current, a phenomenon later known as the photovoltaic effect. The discovery made possible today's technology that uses silicon crystals to create electricity in solar cells.61

Inventors had come up with light bulbs before Thomas Edison demonstrated his bulb in public in 1879, but Edison's was the first version practical enough for widespread use in homes, and the bulbs offered a cost-competitive, cleaner alternative to gas lighting. His invention spurred demand for electric power and led to the construction in 1882 of the first commercial power plant, on Pearl Street in New York City. The plant, initially powered by steam, provided electricity to paying customers in a one-square-mile area.62

The first electricity-generating wind turbine was invented in 1888 in Cleveland by Charles Brush, an engineer. It produced about 12 kilowatts of electricity, far less than the approximately 3,000 kilowatts that the average wind turbine produces today. For 20 years, Brush used the turbine and 12 batteries to supply clean, renewable energy to his mansion in Cleveland.63

Battery-Powered Cars

H.J. Rogers, who owned paper mills in Appleton, Wis., opened the world's first hydroelectric power plant in 1882 on the Fox River in Appleton. The plant used a water wheel connected to a generator to supply enough power — 12.5 kilowatts — to light Rogers' home and two mills. But it experienced a number of technical problems early on. When water flow was high, for example, voltage spiked and burned out the lights, an early harbinger of the problems that affect modern electricity grids adapting to increased use of renewable energy sources.64

In 1896, a hydroelectric plant powered by Niagara Falls began sending power to Buffalo, N.Y., about 20 miles away. Instead of direct current, in which electrons flow steadily in one direction, the new plant used alternating current, in which electrons switch directions periodically. Alternating current, developed for practical use by Nikola Tesla, a Serbian engineer who had moved to the United States, was far superior in transmitting electricity over long distances and laid the groundwork for the modern electrical grid.

Exhibits at the 1900 world's fair in Paris included the first public demonstration of an engine powered by vegetable oil-based diesel fuel. But the design of diesel engines gradually changed to accommodate diesel fuel based on petroleum, which was increasingly available at low prices.65

Auto technology, meanwhile, was advancing rapidly. Battery-powered cars were popular in the early 1900s partly because they were not prone to exploding, as gasoline-powered cars sometimes did, and because they were easier to drive.

“Electricity is the thing,” Edison, who developed nickel-iron storage batteries for cars and other uses, said in 1903. “There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whir of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order — no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline.”66

Electric cars made by inventor Thomas Edison (Getty Images/De Agostini Editorial)
Electric cars made by inventor Thomas Edison sit in a garage in 1907. The debut of Henry Ford's gas-powered Model T in 1908 helped move the country away from electric vehicles. (Getty Images/De Agostini Editorial)

But mass production of the Model T, which debuted in 1908, eventually doomed the electric car industry. Henry Ford's car could travel farther than an electric car and was more affordable, selling in 1912 for about $650 (approximately $16,800 in today's currency), less than half the price of an electric car.67

By that time, coal had overtaken wood as the country's energy source. Coal-fired power plants equipped with steam generators could produce up to 10 megawatts of electricity, enough to power thousands of homes.68

Construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River between Nevada and Arizona began in 1931. The project, described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “an engineering victory of the first order,” began generating hydroelectric power in 1936. Turbines continued to be added until 1961.69

Roosevelt's slate of New Deal programs aimed at helping the country recover from the Great Depression included the Tennessee Valley Authority, created in 1933 in part to initiate a massive program of hydropower construction. The hydroelectric industry thrived from the 1930s through the 1960s as the federal government invested heavily in major dam projects. Hydropower provided much of the electricity needed for factories, aiding the country's participation in World War II.70

After the war, with the country's energy consumption doubling every 10 years, federal officials made plans to build more than 200 nuclear plants throughout the country to generate electricity. The first full-scale nuclear power plant in the United States began operating in 1957 in Shippingport, Pa.71

As the number of cars increased, so did demand for petroleum. By 1950, petroleum had surged ahead of coal as the nation's most consumed source of energy.72

Solar energy research began to accelerate during the postwar era with the discovery that silicon was a much more efficient semiconductor than selenium, the chemical element originally used to make solar cells. The first solar panel made from silicon was built in 1954 and converted 6 percent of the sunlight it was exposed to into electricity. That compares to about 15-17 percent for most solar panels made today.73

U.S. officials viewed the space race with the Soviet Union as a compelling reason to advance solar technology. Vanguard 1, the first solar-powered satellite, was launched in March 1958 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with the goal of testing the launch capabilities of a three-state rocket. Sixty-one years later, it is still circling the Earth, but only because it was launched into such a high orbit that it will be many years before that orbit decays to the point that Vanguard I re-enters the atmosphere. Its solar-powered batteries died long ago.74

The Clean Air Act, passed by Congress in 1963, consisted of a comprehensive strategy to control air pollution and encouraged development of alternative fuels, including renewable fuels such as ethanol, methanol and biodiesel. Seven years later, the country celebrated the first Earth Day, which focused attention on the need to protect the environment.75

Oil Crisis

U.S. oil production rose sharply during the 1960s, rising to 9.6 million barrels per day in 1970. But Americans suddenly had a new reason to worry about gas supplies in 1973, when Arab countries decided not to sell oil to the United States and other countries that had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War that year.

The price of crude oil quadrupled to more than $12 a barrel, contributing to a severe global economic recession. President Richard Nixon responded by announcing Project Independence, which was designed to conserve oil and rely more on coal and nuclear power, with the objective of ending reliance on imported oil by 1980.76

In 1975, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which established fuel economy requirements and emissions restrictions for new cars and trucks.77

Federal officials also began looking to solar energy as a potential alternative to oil. The 1974 Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act made it official U.S. policy “to pursue … the objective of utilizing solar energy as a major source for our national energy needs.” The act also created a new federal office, the Solar Energy Research Institute — later renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory — to advance the industrial use of solar power.78

Another 1974 bill, the Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act, ordered solar heating and cooling units installed in federal buildings by 1977. “Essentially, Congress was attempting to turn federal buildings into billboards for solar energy,” according to the Institute for Energy Research, an organization in Washington that studies government regulation of global energy markets.79

More shocks to the U.S. energy sector came in 1979, after political upheaval in Iran, combined with strong global economic growth and fuel hoarding based on fears of future oil shortages, caused oil prices to more than double between April 1979 and April 1980.80

In March 1979, a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa., experienced a partial meltdown. There were no direct casualties, but the episode badly shook the nation's faith in nuclear power as a safe form of energy.81

Government tax credits for wind energy projects, a response to the oil shocks of the 1970s, triggered a “wind rush” during the following decade. The country's first wind farm was built in 1980 at Crotched Mountain, N.H. Larger projects followed in 1981 at Altamont Pass and Tehachapi in California.82

Global Warming Debates

Climate change emerged as a new focus of national concern after NASA scientist James Hansen told a Senate committee in 1988 that a buildup of carbon in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels was causing the planet to warm. “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” Hansen said. He had issued similar warnings before, but this time his words had a stronger impact.83

At that time, renewable energy accounted for 8.8 percent of the country's electricity generation, with fossil fuels accounting for 71.7 percent and nuclear plants 19.5 percent.84

Four years later, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which provided loan guarantees for companies developing zero-emissions technologies and increased the amount of biofuel — such as ethanol, made with corn — that previous laws had stipulated must be mixed into gasoline to reduce emissions. That same year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change identified greenhouse gases as the main contributors to global warming.85

Congress, meanwhile, was continuing to take steps to reduce air pollution, passing amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 that recognized acid rain as a problem.86

Debates over the role of human activity in climate change continued in the early 2000s. People installed solar panels on their rooftops and bought gas-electric hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius, introduced in 1997.87

Wind power found an unlikely champion in T. Boone Pickens, a Texas oil billionaire, in 2007. Pickens spent $2 billion to buy 687 General Electric wind turbines for a massive wind farm he planned to build in the Texas Panhandle. But the plan collapsed in 2009. Pickens said he faced technical problems building transmission lines to link the turbines to a power distribution system.88

The bankruptcy of solar panel company Solyndra in 2011 — and its default on a $535 million loan guaranteed by the Department of Energy — focused new attention on federal subsidies for renewable energy. The department's inspector general later concluded that, when applying for the loan guarantee, the company had made misleading and inaccurate statements about its sales contracts.89

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, concluded in 2015, took effect the next year. The agreement's goal is to reduce the consequences of climate change by limiting the rise in global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and preferably no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above those levels.90

In 2017, President Trump, who has long denied that human activity contributes to climate change, announced that he would withdraw from the agreement, saying it “disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”91

But use of renewable energy is soaring in the country, with solar power accounting for about 62 percent of new utility-scale electricity generation in 2016. By 2017, solar, wind and hydroelectric power supplied 17.7 percent of the country's electricity, double the share they had claimed only nine years earlier. Between 2006 and 2017, renewable sources accounted for more than half of cumulative additions to U.S. energy capacity.92

Prices for wind and solar energy in the United States continued to plunge in 2017 and 2018. Average wind-power prices dropped to $20 per megawatt hour in 2017, down from $70 in 2009, according to federal energy officials. The cost of coal-fired electricity, by comparison, ranges from $60 to $143 per megawatt hour.93

In June last year, NV Energy, a public utility in Nevada, filed for state regulatory approval of a contract that would provide solar power at the record low price of $23.76 per megawatt hour at Eagle Shadow Mountain Solar Farm, being developed by 8minutenergy Renewables, a renewable energy company based in San Francisco.94

Prices for energy storage batteries also have plunged, falling 79 percent since 2010. “The economic case for building new coal and gas capacity is crumbling, as batteries start to encroach on the flexibility and [peak demand] revenues enjoyed by fossil fuel plants,” said Elena Giannakopoulou, head of energy economics at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.95

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[58] “Industrial Revolution,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, undated,; C.N. Trueman, “James Watt,” The History Learning Site, March 31, 2015,

[59] “Benjamin Franklin and the Kite Experiment,” The Franklin Institute, June 12, 2017,

[60] “Michael Faraday's electric magnetic rotation apparatus (motor),” The Royal Institution,” undated,; Suzanne Deffree, “Faraday discovers electromagnetic induction, August 29, 1831,” EDN Network, Aug. 29, 2018,

[61] “Early History of Solar,”, undated,

[62] “Edison Biography,” U.S. National Park Service, undated,

[63] Jake Richardson, “America's First Wind Turbine Generated Electricity In 1888,” Clean Technica, June 22, 2014,

[64] Caleb March, “On This Day: First Hydroelectric Plant Opens,” Finding Dulcinea, Sept. 30, 2011,

[65] “Historical Timeline: History of Alternative Energy and Fossil Fuels,”, June 13, 2013,

[66] Daniel Strohl, “How Henry Ford And Thomas Edison Killed The Electric Car,” Jalopnik, June 16, 2010,

[67] Megan Barber, “Before Tesla: Why everyone wanted an electric car in 1905,” Curbed, Sept. 22, 2017,

[68] Abby Harvey, Aaron Larson and Sonal Patel, “History of Power: The Evolution of the Electric Generation Industry,” Power, Oct. 1, 2017,

[69] “Construction of the Dam,” University of Virginia, undated,

[70] “Our History,” Tennessee Valley Authority, undated,; “Hydroelectric Power,” Dictionary of American History,, 2003,

[71] “A Short History of Energy: The Old Days,” Union of Concerned Scientists,; “Historical Timeline: History of Alternative Energy and Fossil Fuels,” op. cit.

[72] “United States Energy Use by Source, 1950–2015,”, Jan. 20, 2018,

[73] “Electricity & Alternative Energy: The Photovoltaic Effect and the Development of Solar Technology,” Alberta Culture and Tourism, undated,; “What are the most efficient solar panels on the market? Solar panel efficiency explained,” energysage, undated,

[74] “Electricity & Alternative Energy: The Photovoltaic Effect and the Development of Solar Technology,” ibid.; Alice Gorman, “60 years in orbit for ‘grapefruit satellite’ — the oldest human object in space,” The Conversation, March 21, 2018,

[75] “Clean Air Act,” USLegal, undated,; Alina Bradford, “Earth Day: Facts & History,” Live Science, April 18, 2017,

[76] James Williams, “Oil Price History and Analysis,” WTRG Economics, Montclair State University, April 9, 2008,; Robert Rapier “The Lasting Impact of the 1973 Oil Embargo,” Energy Trends Insider, Oct. 23, 2013,

[77] “Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards,” U.S. Department of Transportation, Aug. 27, 2014,

[78] “H.R.16276 — Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act,”, Aug. 6, 1974,; Matthew Sabas, “History of Solar Power,” Institute for Energy Research, Feb. 18, 2016,

[79] Sabas, ibid.

[80] Laurel Graefe, “Oil Shock of 1978–79,” Federal Reserve History, Nov. 22, 2013,

[81] “Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident,” U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, June 2018,

[82] “U.S. wind energy grows in California, then stagnates nationwide in the 1980's,” American Wind Energy Association, undated,; Molly Lautamo, “Altamont Pass: What's the Story With Those Windmills?” Mobile Ranger, Aug. 9, 2016,

[83] Philip Shabecoff, “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate,” The New York Times, June 24, 1988,

[84] “Mapped: How the US generates electricity,” Carbon Brief, Oct. 10, 2017,

[85] “Summary of the Energy Policy Act,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, undated,; “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” United Nations, 1992,

[86] Thomas H, Moore, “Acid Rain: New Approach to Old Problem,” CQ Researcher, March 8, 1991, pp. 129–144.

[87] “History of the Toyota Prius,” Toyota, Feb. 12, 2019,

[88] John Porretto, “Pickens calls off massive wind farm in Texas,” The Associated Press, ABC News, July 8, 2009,

[89] “Special Report: The Department of Energy's Loan Guarantee to Solyndra, Inc.,” U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General, Aug. 24, 2015,

[90] “Paris Climate Agreement to enter into force on 4 November,” United Nations, Oct. 5, 2016,

[91] “Statement by President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord,” op. cit.

[92] Chris Meehan, “Rooftop Solar Pushes New Renewable Energy in 2017 Past Halfway Mark for all New Energy,” Solar Reviews, Jan. 16, 2018,; “US Renewable Electricity Production Up 14.7%, Fossil Fuels & Nuclear Drop (CleanTechnica Chart),” Clean Technica, Dec. 6, 2017,

[93] Ryan Wiser and Mark Bolinger, “2017 Wind Technologies Market Report,” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy,; Coley Girouard, “The Numbers are In and Renewables are Winning On Price Alone,” Blog, Advanced Energy Economy, Dec. 5, 2018,

[94] Julian Spector, “Nevada's 2.3-Cent Bid Beats Arizona's Record-Low Solar PPA Price,” Greentech Media, June 12, 2018,

[95] “Tumbling Costs for Wind, Solar, Batteries Are Squeezing Fossil Fuels,” Bloomberg NEF, March 28, 2018,

Document APA Citation
Mossman, M. (2019, March 15). Renewable energy debate. CQ researcher, 29, 1-58. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2019031503
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