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The alternative energy industry began during the early 1970s and developed slowly in response to people’s growing concerns about the United States’ dependence on imported oil. Although alternative energy technologies have been in the making for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists and the government began to seriously develop them, by creating government programs and funding for their creation and use.
Alternative energy, by definition, is any nontraditional source that meets the energy needs of consumers. Traditional sources are fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas. Alternative sources are those that do not require the use of fossil fuels. Also, there is a difference between alternative energy sources and renewable energy sources. Not all alternative energy sources are considered renewable, although most are. One energy source that could be considered an alternative is nuclear energy. However, because it is associated with environmental and safety concerns, many people do not agree that it should be classified with other alternative sources. As of 2014, the three leading sources of alternative energy for generating electricity were wind energy, solar energy, and geothermal energy sources. The leading alternative energy source for transportation fuel was biofuels, with ethanol leading the market.
The 1970s were the pivotal years for the alternative energy industry because it was during these years that the United States’ population and its government realized that its oil reserves were finite and controlled by foreign nations. One of the events that led up to public awareness of this was the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960. OPEC formed when five of the leading oil-exporter nations in the world—Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—decided to form a consortium to control the price of oil. In 1973, OPEC placed an oil embargo on the United States, stopping the flow of exported oil to the country, to protest American support of Israel with military equipment and supplies during the Yom Kippur War. As a result of the embargo, gasoline prices shot up from thirty cents a gallon to more than $1.00 a gallon, and domestic producers were not able to keep up with demand. Consumers lined up at the pumps and the awareness of how much oil Americans consumed and imported increased exponentially. This led to a new interest in developing alternative fuel sources, and this interest has compounded over the last 40 years, leading to the development of the alternative energy industry.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States' overall use of alternative energy sources in 2012 remained steady or declined slightly. Biomass fuels usage dropped slightly from 2.60 quadrillion Btus (British thermal units, a measurement of heat) in 2011 to 2.53 quadrillion Btus in 2012. Usage of other renewable energy sources—geothermal, solar, wind—increased from 1.70 quadrillion Btus in 2011 to 1.97 quadrillion Btus in 2012. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected energy usage through the coming decades would rise with biofuel consumption reaching 4.26 quadrillion Btus by 2040 and other renewable energy sources rising to 3.89 quadrillion Btus.
Today, workers in the alternative energy industry are scientists, engineers, project managers, solar energy system manufacturing managers, supervisors, and workers, wind farm operators and managers, and others.