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The History of Renewable Energy: Where It All Began


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The History of Renewable Energy: Where It All Began

It’s safe to say that we’re passionate about renewable energy. Not just solar, but all forms of energy sources that pose no threat or danger to Mother Earth. If you hadn’t noticed, we’re always talking about the future of renewable energy – where the technology is going, how fast it will take to get there, and so on.

What we often don’t appreciate is the long, much-trodden path that led us to where we are now. It’s a history of intrepid, bold inventors, scientific explorers, and the savviest of businesspeople.

In this blog we’re starting at the very beginning. Here is the full history of renewable energy; a story of the great strides taken in the name of environmental health.

200 BC – Waterwheels

Renewable energy – defined as energy that can be renewed, unlike fuels like gas, oil, or coal – started in Europe over 2,000 years ago. Of course, this was a brute form, but it created the premise for today’s technological feats.

It all started with ‘waterwheels’, which mimic the workings behind hydropower.

A waterwheel converts the energy of moving water into mechanical or electrical energy. It uses a rotating shaft to convert the kinetic movement of the water into mechanics, so that it drives any attached machinery to serve its function.

1590s – Windmills

Staying in Europe – the Netherlands, to be exact – we now look to the year 1590, when the popularity of windmills was at its peak. You know the type: those towering edifices that speak for a large part of Dutch industry and culture.

Windmills had come years before, in horizontal form and across large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, in around 635 AD. The technology that influenced today’s wind turbines, however, was perfected in the Netherlands.

These were a far cry from the highly specialised wind turbines you see today. A windmill works through its blades and rotor shaft, so when the wind blows it pushes the blades to motion, causing them to spin. At this early time, windmills were used primarily to pump water and to mill grain.

1860 – The world’s first solar energy system

Now we’re off to France, where in 1860 the world’s first solar energy system was invented by French investor Augustin Mouchot. After his predictions that one day our coal supply would run out (we think he was on to something), Mochet ran trials on his ‘sun meter’.

Here are a few words from the man himself:

“One must not believe, despite the silence of modern writings, that the idea of using solar heat for mechanical operations is recent. On the contrary, one must recognise that this idea is very ancient and its slow development across the centuries has given birth to various curious devices”.

Indeed, the techniques at the heart of solar power have been practised for generations; Mouchot was just the first to perfect it.

1876 – You can use solar cells to generate energy!

Picture the scene: it’s London in 1876, and you are William Grylls Adams, Professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s College. You and your understudy have demonstrated to a board of fellow professors just how you can use selenium cells to harness rays from the sun and generate electricity. Success! Recognition! Acclaim!

Adams’s findings would prove instrumental in furthering the field of solar study. We’ll toast to that.

1887 – Windmills, round II

It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century (1887) that wind turbines were built and had started to generate (geddit?) interest in and around Europe. Just a year later, in 1888, Charles F. Brush invented the first windmill used to generate electricity on a farm in Cleveland, Ohio. By 1908, there were 72 wind turbines generating electricity in Denmark. And by the time the 1930s rolled around, they were widespread across the US.

The technology accelerated throughout the 20th century, alongside the increasing need to generate clean, renewable energy. In 2016, it was found that there are approximately 341,320 wind turbines in operation around the world. It’s reached such a scale that the global wind industry accounted for 1,555,000 jobs at the end of 2016.

1905 – Albert Einstein and the ‘photoelectric effect’

Famed physicist Albert Einstein perfected the ‘photoelectric effect’, which examines just how light-cells carry potent forms of energy that can be harnessed to power buildings across the civilised world.

The photoelectric effect is best described as the emission of electrons when light is shined upon certain materials. Einstein would win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, awarded especially for his work in solar energy.

That said, one Edmond Becquerel actually discovered the effect back in 1839, when experimenting with the effect of light and how it interacts with electrolytic cells. Now you can understand how protective these inventor-types can be when it comes to their work…

1927 – Wind turbines go commercial

1927 saw the first sale of commercial wind turbines, sold for a considerable sum (back then, anyway) to a group of remote US farmers.

This was the first instance of renewable energy making a splash on a large, commercial scale. People began to take notice.

1935 – Hoover Dam

This Colorado landmark was built to control the water-flow along the Colorado River and to provide Southern California and Arizona with a steady water supply. At the time, it was the largest hydroelectric facility in the US.

Over 5,000 workers were employed during the five years it took to build, and at full capacity it can hold enough water to cover the state of Connecticut 10 feet deep.

It’s regarded as one of the world’s renewable powerhouses, and it’s certainly one of our crowning achievements. It cost $165 million to build, which we reckon is a bargain when you think about its scale and its positive effect on the environment.

We’d go as far to say an absolute steal.

1958 – Solar goes to space

1958 saw the first US satellite use solar energy as its power source. The Vanguard 1 launched on St. Patrick’s Day, and it left behind a legacy that’s remembered on par with the American moon-landing that came 11 years later.

1978 – One whole village goes solar

The Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona became the first solar-powered village in the world. There would be many more to come, but this tribal community was the first.

1996 – The SOLAR Project

Located in Spain, the Mojave Desert (California), and wider regions of the US, the SOLAR Project consists of three solar power-plants, all built with the collective aim of furthering the technology and coming up with more efficient ways to harness and, ultimately, store the energy.

In 1996, the work of Solar Two – a plant in the Mojave Desert – succeeded in finding this better, more cost-efficient way. Instead of using oil or water to store energy (as Solar One did), the team at this particular plant used a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate.

This combination allowed the energy to be stored for much longer periods of time, especially for when clouds obscure the light. This meant that systems could remain at full operation for up to three hours after the sun had set: a massive advancement for its time.

2013 – Ivanpah

2013 saw Ivanpah: the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant, built in the South California Mojave Desert. Its staggering scale is testament to how far the technology has come, and its construction is a landmark moment not just for solar fans like us, but also for the worldwide renewable community in general.

It covers 4,000 acres of land and it cost $2.2 billion to make. Again, an absolute bargain (in the grand scheme of things).

Modern solar solutions

As you can tell, we’ve come a long way, and we continue to innovate in every facet of modern life. But without the keen experimentation of years gone by, who knows where we would be.

We’re proud to be part of the movement, and we want you to get involved.

If you’re thinking about the potential of solar energy for your home or business, get in touch by calling 0800 112 3110. You can also fill out an enquiry form here – we’re happy to talk through your options.