Activity Overview: Despite advances, today the global economy consumes most of its energy through only four technologies: the steam turbine, gas turbine, gasoline engine and diesel engine. The most popular conversion device is the steam turbine. More than 30 quads of primary energy are converted by steam turbines each year to produce electricity. Combustion turbines consume another 9 quads for electricity and transportation. The spark-ignition engine, also known as the gasoline engine, and the compression-ignition engine, also known as the diesel engine, round out the suite of technologies. These four devices are responsible for well over 60% of all our energy conversions, but all four devices were invented in the 1800s or earlier. Therefore, old-fashioned technology drives the modern energy economy. Even the newest conversion devices, like solar photovoltaic cells, were invented in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, solar use is growing in number and in popularity. The presence of wind turbines, invented in the late 1800s, is growing as well. Although the energy matrix has changed rapidly since the 1970s, the underlying conversion technologies of the industry are slow to change.
Individually, in groups, or as a class, make a timeline that shows the invention dates of the major energy conversion devices. Ensure the timeline also includes the present day to demonstrate the age of the major technologies. Can your class extrapolate from this timeline that the energy technology landscape is slow to change?
Time: 20-30 minutes
The introduction for this activity was reprinted in part from Chapter 5: Energy Uses from Energy 101: Energy Technology & Policy, which provides a history of energy sources, end uses, consumption patterns, and transitions between them.
Students should identify additional print and digital resources and evaluate them for relevance, validity, and reliability.
Watch the following video from the PBS and Amazon Prime documentary series Power Trip: The Story of Energy.
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