Geography Energy Resources and Use
Barry D. Solomon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0021


Human societies have depended on access to readily available supplies of fuel and other energy resources since the earliest civilizations, because people need energy to conduct work and to survive. This dependence has been an important factor in the location of communities. The earliest sources of energy were animal and human muscle power, including slaves, and various forms of biomass, solar, and wind power. As technology advanced, especially since the Industrial Revolution, an increasing variety of energy resources and use patterns emerged that have allowed human societies to consume energy on a much larger scale. Given the central role of energy and fuel use and efficiency in society, geographers have long recognized the importance of this subject, though they have not studied it in a unified way and also have relied on insights and methods from many other disciplines. The perspectives and methods of economic, transportation, political, and cultural geography; technological hazards; and geographic information systems have been common among geographers’ study of energy, though several other approaches can be found in the literature. Studies in developed countries focus on the growth and leading role of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), nuclear power, and other sources of electricity, while in developing countries biomass energy sources still dominate as these societies struggle to develop and modernize. The most recent works address energy and the challenges of climate change, renewable energy, and sustainable development.

General Overviews

Several comprehensive summaries have been written about energy geography, mostly as books and book chapters. Many overview books on the topic have been compiled, though usually these are broader volumes that, although enriched by geography, do not restrict themselves to a single perspective as would a textbook on energy geography alone. This approach is logical because, like geography, energy is a broad subject that requires at least a minimal background in many other fields to appreciate its richness, including physics, geology, engineering, economics, ecology, history, sociology, and more. Smil 2006 and Cook 1976 are good places to start, but a review of recent energy statistics will also be valuable (see Reference Works). Also, because the energy field encompasses a large number of competing energy units, conversion factors, terminology, and a plethora of fascinating topics, readers also should consult Cleveland 2009, Cleveland and Morris 2009, or Cleveland and Morris 2013. For readers interested in quick reviews of the major contributions by geographers to the recent energy literature, the decades since 1990 are well covered in Solomon, et al. 2004; Pasqualetti and Brown 2014; and Calvert 2016. A broad overview volume of the field, targeted to graduate students, is that of Solomon and Calvert 2017. The current challenges raised by large-scale energy use, and related issues such as climate change, portend a conflict-laden future. One view of these challenges is provided in Smil 2003, though there are many others, given the contested nature of energy options (see Energy Policy).

  • Calvert, Kirby E. “From ‘Energy Geography’ to ‘Energy Geographies’: Perspectives on a Fertile Academic Borderland.” Progress in Human Geography 40.1 (2016): 105–125.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132514566343

    In addition to reviewing geographical approaches to energy studies, this paper argues convincingly that a plurality of approaches to the study of energy geography is the norm. Problems, opportunities, and uncertainties that energy geographers address in their various research foci also are reviewed.

  • Cleveland, Cutler J., ed. Concise Encyclopedia of the History of Energy. San Diego, CA: Elsevier, 2009.

    An update of the 2004 six-volume Encyclopedia of Energy of almost 5,400 pages, also edited by Cleveland, which covered every conceivable energy topic. Though available in many libraries, the much longer 2004 version has gone out of print. (It is still available for purchase as an e-book; see Cleveland 2004, cited under Reference Works.) Articles are mid-length, and this 2009 encyclopedia covers the main areas of energy history in just 368 pages.

  • Cleveland, Cutler J., and Christopher G. Morris, eds. Dictionary of Energy: Expanded Edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science, 2009.

    A dictionary covering all major energy terms, including theoretical, environmental, and economic aspects of energy resources, production, and use.

  • Cleveland, Cutler J., and Christopher G. Morris. Handbook of Energy. 2 vols. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2013.

    Volume 1 provides diagrams, charts, and tables, while Volume 2 includes top ten lists, word clouds, and important chronologies in the history of energy development. Both volumes are organized by energy sources, foundations, applications, effects, and correlations.

  • Cook, Earl F. Man, Energy, Society. San Francisco: Freeman, 1976.

    Classic text that considers the broader challenges raised by growing energy use, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. Cook recommends an adjustment in values and lifestyles as a prudent response to energy and resource realities.

  • Pasqualetti, Martin J., and Marilyn A. Brown. “Ancient Discipline, Modern Concern: Geographers in the Field of Energy and Society.” Energy Research & Social Science 1 (2014): 122–133.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.erss.2014.03.016

    Less of a temporal perspective on the contributions of geographers to energy research, this review focuses on important geographic topics such as renewable energy and energy security, and geographical analysis tools to advance the study of energy resources and energy systems.

  • Smil, Vaclav. Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003.

    Written by a prolific Canadian geographer and author of numerous energy books. In this volume, Smil argues for a reduction in societal dependence on fossil fuels because of economic, social, and security problems, and he highlights the pitfalls of energy forecasting, including peak oil.

  • Smil, Vaclav. Energy: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

    Short monograph that addresses energy in the biosphere, in human history (both pre- and post-industrialization), and in everyday life. Relies heavily on previous writings by the author.

  • Solomon, Barry D., and Kirby E. Calvert, eds. Handbook on the Geographies of Energy. Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2017.

    A broad handbook of thirty-eight chapters, if not fully comprehensive, that provides an overview of the field. Chapters are organized into six parts: fuels, energies, energy consumption: sectors and end use, changing energy landscapes (including eight world regional case studies and two chapters on energy transitions), energy at the nexus, and conceptual approaches to energy geographies looking forward.

  • Solomon, Barry D., Martin J. Pasqualetti, and Deborah A. Luchsinger. “Energy Geography.” In Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Edited by Gary L. Gaile and Cort J. Willmott, 302–313. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Reviews the major trends in the energy geography literature for the period 1989–2002. The evolution of core topics and themes among geographers studying energy are discussed.

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