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History and Technology


Historical Studies


Debates over biofuels, especially ethanol and biodiesel, in the twenty-first century rarely consider the long history of producing and consuming biofuels in the United States. This article assesses that long history of industrially produced biofuels in the United States. First, the article periodizes a century and a half of biofuels into six distinct eras: (1) the camphene era (1830s-1860s) when alcohol was used for illumination, (2) the early automobile era (1900-1920) when alcohol was pitted against gasoline in internal combustion engines, (3) the rural development era (1920s-1930s) when alcohol fuels were promoted to help struggling farmers, (4) the energy crisis era (1970s-1980s) when alcohol fuels were used to extend tight fuel supplies, (5) the environmentalism era (1990s-2001) when alcohol fuels were promoted as cleaner than gasoline, and (6) the energy security era (2001-present) when alcohol fuels became a tool to achieve energy security. Second, the article argues that biofuels’ history in the United States illustrates broader themes in the history (and likely future) of renewable energy, such as the role of regional politics in shaping renewable energy systems, the emergence of sacrifice zones for renewable fuel production, and the influence of national culture on renewable energy policy.