The three fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal--are the decayed remains of the plants and animals that lived and died more than 300 million years ago. Buried and compressed under layers of rock and sand in the earth and beneath the oceans, those remains became the deposits of fossil fuels. The name is derived from fossils, which are the mineralized or preserved-in-nature evidence of some of those same ancient creatures or plants that once lived on the earth.
Early Fossil Fuel Use
More than 6,000 years ago, the ancients living along the Euphrates River and ancient Egyptians collected a black liquid seeping from the ground--oil. They used it as a medicine for wounds and burned it to provide light from lamps. In that same region, between 6,000 and 2,000 years ago, lightning strikes ignited gas seeps and introduced natural gas to the ancient Persians for the "eternal fires" of their fire-worship. More than 3,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered coal as a stone that burned; they used it to smelt copper.
When burned, oil, natural gas and coal produce the chemical energy that meets more than 85 percent of the world's energy demands. The demand for oil has progressed way beyond ancient medicinal use--Native Americans waterproofing their canoes or the Revolutionary War-era treatment of frostbite. Petroleum products are not only heating homes and businesses, fueling transportation on land, sea and air, and generating electrical power. Farm fertilizers, fabrics, almost all plastics and thousands of other vital and daily-use products come from oil.
For many years, coal was mainly the fuel for heating homes and businesses, powering railroads and factories. Today, coal is the primary fuel for powering electricity. Based on the Energy Information Administration's inventory, coal provided 31.2 percent of the United States' electric capacity in 2005.
The natural gas industry, once a source for lighting in homes and street lamps, is a vital fuel source. Both public and private enterprises benefit from the modern technologies for retrieving it from the ground and distribution, supplying power for 41.2 percent of United States' electricity. Natural gas is the most popular source for heating and air conditioning office buildings, schools, churches, hotels, restaurants and government buildings and fulfilling the cooking needs for restaurants and other facilities. It is used for waste treatment and incineration, glass manufacturing and food processing.
Fossil Fuel Alternatives
Wind power is just one of the alternatives to fossil fuels being pursued, but though it is a price-competitive, potentially significant alternative source of power, land use is one of the unresolved issues. A utility-scale wind plant requires about 60 acres per MW (megawatt) of electricity production (American Wind Energy Association). The largest coal-fired power plant in Ohio occupies 187 acres and produces 2,233 MW (FirstEngergy Corporation). Therefore, a wind plant would require 13,398 acres to produce the same amount of electricity.
There are many other factors, both practical and political, to be considered and solved before viable alternatives to fossil fuels can become widespread realities for meeting the energy needs of the world.