ENERGY GEOGRAPHY IS a subdiscipline of geography that draws from many philosophical and thematic traditions, but it is primarily positioned in the interface of environmental and economic concerns. The extraction, harnessing, and consumption of the natural resources that supply society with our energy needs have always been central to economic activities. Over time, however, it has also become apparent that we face scarcity of resources and negative consequences of pollution, and the environmental component of energy analysis has grown stronger. As such, the focus on energy in geography is important because it addresses one of the central aspects of the discipline—the human-environment interaction.
Energy can be defined as the capacity for, or equivalent of, doing work. Society needs energy for transportation, heating and cooling of buildings, powering production processes in industry, and various household needs. Sources of energy are classified as renewable or nonrenewable. Nonrenewable is primarily fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas. More than 80 percent of U.S. energy needs are satisfied by fossil fuel. Renewable energy sources include hydro-electric, solar, and wind power. Nuclear power occupies a special position not commonly classified as either renewable or non-renewable. Often, the energy source itself has to be converted to a usable form. The most common and versatile form is electricity, which is generated in coalfired power plants, nuclear plants, or hydroelectric dams. In the transportation sector, gasoline and other oil derivatives directly power the combustion engine. Another example of this direct use is when natural gas is utilized for home heating.
Energy geography may not be as well defined as economic or cultural geography. For example, courses in energy geography are infrequent in geography departments around the country, although energy issues are often addressed in other forums. Geographers’ interest in energy has mirrored the developments in society at large. With the advent of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and the subsequent oil crisis and surging energy costs, energy studies became increasingly popular in the 1970s in geography as well as in the research community in general. After the immediate crisis, energy concerns were not prioritized, but socioeconomic and technical solutions continue to make our energy system more efficient. There is still much work to be done, however, and in this endeavor, geographers can be found not only in academic departments but also in government agencies and laboratories and in private industry.
What, then, is the geographic perspective on energy? Inevitably, society’s energy use has spatial dimensions and impacts. Here is a selected list of themes of concern to energy geographers:
First, energy geography is about the distribution of resources over space. The global location of natural resources such as oil, gas, and coal sets the parameters for our energy needs. The location of fossil fuel is determined by geology, but the potential for renewable energies also exhibits spatial variation because of geomorphic (hydroelectric) and climate (solar and wind) factors.
The extraction of energy-generating resources and their strong concentration in some areas has led to regional economies being heavily dependent upon energy industries. Such dependency can lead to large profits, but also fluctuations in income as raw material prices are volatile on the world market. Resource extraction may not produce diverse and stable long-term regional economies. Access to strategic energy resources, particularly oil, can also have geopolitical ramifications. The harnessing of energy for human purposes has environmental and social impacts on the supply side. Hydroelectric power, although emission-free, has landuse impacts as dams inundate large areas and irreversibly alter river hydrology, riparian vegetation, and habitats. Moreover, the people reaping the benefits of hydroelectric power are not necessarily the same (or located in the same place) as those who are impacted negatively (those displaced). Wind power is facing related problems on a smaller scale; in this case, wind generators detract from the scenic aspects of the landscape. In addition, coal mining creates the problems of acid mine drainage and strip mining, while oil drilling can create leakage and contamination of the local environment.
The geographic difference between resource location and energy demand necessitates transportation and distribution. The transportation of oil on oceangoing vessels has frequently led to devastating oil spills. Distribution systems like pipelines also trigger environmental concerns, and like power lines, the construction of such networks is often opposed by residents and localities in their proximity.
Then there are environmental and social impacts on the demand side. The effects of the energy conversion or consumption process result in emissions, particularly gaseous air emissions. Pollutants include various forms of sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon oxides with environmental effects such as smog, acid rain, and global warming. Adverse human health effects (respiratory problems and cancer, for example) may also ensue.
Nuclear energy production, on the other hand, creates a particularly severe waste issue. Finding a solution to radioactive waste storage is a locational problem that spans geography and politics.
Such environmental problems are not inevitable or unavoidable. Geographers have therefore been interested in the spatial organization of energy systems. The UNITED STATES, for example, has the highest per capita energy consumption in the world. This high consumption level is, in part, a result of the sprawling nature of settlement patterns. To achieve a more sustainable society, it has to be spatially organized so as to enable recycling, minimize energy consumption, and utilize renewables, while at the same time allowing for a reasonable level of economic growth. One problem is that the environmental consequences of our actions are often “hidden” as we as individuals are not immediately impacted. Concepts developed to illuminate such relationships include the ecological footprint idea and life-cycle analysis. We must also take into account human behavior and our consumption choices when it comes to energy use.
Geographers can contribute to efficient and equitable energy systems by critiquing and suggesting energy policy. This includes conservation efforts and highlighting social consequences of policy making. We are currently dependent on fossil fuels and the infrastructure built to support it, but a transition to other energy sources, including perhaps hydrogen- and biomass-based fuel technologies, will inevitably occur during the 21st century.