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Where we've been

Humans have relied on a number of energy sources over time. The first being plant matter that we ate, the next being animals, which get their energy from plant matter. Next came biomass, whether wood, dung, other plant fibers that we burned for heat. Eventually, we figured out we could use animals, the wind, and the sun to do work. Then came fossil fuels that we could burn and nuclear reactions we could harness. Now, with all of these options, it is time to reassess where our energy comes from.

It is time to reassess where our energy comes from
Approximate energy usage (in 1000 kcal) of humans at different points in our development.Credit: Western Oregon University
Renewable energy technologies are not very new. We've used biomass for thousands of years. Wind mills have been used for milling for millenia as well. And when you look back at the buildings of ancient civilizations, you'll notice that they all took advantage of solar energy, with big windows facing the sun and with some groups even putting water in black containers on their roofs to heat it. Even in more recent times, electricity and biofuel-powered vehicles were more popular than gasoline until someone figured out a better way to turn the black stuff coming out of the ground into a cheap fuel.

It is only within the last couple hundred years that we really started getting addicted to the idea of cheap, abundant energy from the ground. We've gotten distracted by fossil fuels, not fully aware of their effects. Now that we know how bad these fuels are for ourselves and the rest of the natural world, we need to get back to using energy from sources that are more sustainable. That's not saying we need to go back to living in log cabins in the woods, cutting down trees for our source of heat. But we need to use the technologies we have available to us to run our world in a way that doesn't cause irreparable damage on a daily basis. The technologies are here, and you can learn about them in the rest of this section.
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