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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 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 (EIA), from 2000 to 2014, the production of biofuels and nonhydroelectric renewable energy sources doubled, primarily due to the increase in government mandates and incentives for using renewable energy sources. From 2002 to 2013, biomass energy consumption in the United States grew by more than 60 percent. The EIA reported that in 2014, U.S. consumption of renewable energy sources totaled about 9.6 quadrillion Btus (British thermal units, the unit of measure for the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit), which accounted for 10 percent of the total energy consumption in the United States that year. The EIA projected renewable energy usage would rise steadily in the coming decades, with wind-powered generation, solar photovoltaic, geothermal, and biomass experiencing the most increases in annual average rates of consumption through 2040.
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.