Planet Money’s Jacob Goldstein and Lam Thuy Vo offered some interesting data last week about the history of energy consumption in the U.S.  First they offered data on the rise and fall of alternative energy sources.

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Coal, the first to replace wood, became a common energy source largely thanks to the railroads.  Wood was more or less everywhere, but coal had to be transported.

The invention and spread of the internal combustion engine drove the demand for oil.  According to this site (PM doesn’t say), natural gas becomes common in the ’50s thanks to the improvement of techniques for making metals and welding. This facilitates the building of oil pipelines, hence the rise of oil.

The overall rise in energy consumption per capita is worrisome, but it has fallen off since the mid-70s.  Thanks to high prices that encourage lower use and greater efficiency of appliances, our appetite for energy seems to have leveled off.

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Not to end on an optimistic note, though.  That data is per capita.  Because our population has been rising, our overall energy use has continued to go up.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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