The terms “renewable” and “sustainable” used to refer to clean or green energy are of recent origin. However, the concept of eco-friendly energy dates back to the beginning of human history.
From the time human beings started inhabiting the earth, they turned to nature and its bounties to sustain themselves. Be it trapping the sun’s energy to start a fire or burning wood to keep themselves warm or to cook food or as a source of light or harnessing the strength of the wind or water to help power mills, our renewable energy background has been a long and strong one.
However, the Industrial Revolution changed our lives in a way never seen before. The development of coal coke opened up such amazing new possibilities that we abandoned the use of renewable energy resources. Coal slowly began to displace all other energies.
In the 19th century, scientists stumbled upon certain technologies like electrolysis and photovoltaic effect. These accidental and unintentional discoveries paved the way for our return to renewable energy resources much later in the 20th century when we realized the harmful effects of fossil fuels.
The renewable energy history is as old as mankind. This article is an attempt at tracing the history of renewable energy technologies from those early days when we used the sun’s rays to start a fire to the most modern solar panels and other newer forms of renewable energy systems. This is a tribute to all renewable energy inventors who are helping in making this planet livable.
How did it all begin?
Although humans have been using various renewable energy resources like sunlight, wind, and water to make their lives easier since time immemorial, the development of technologies to harness them efficiently began in the 19th century. While some of them were accidental discoveries, others were the results of years of hard work.
This leads us to the question – When was renewable energy first used?
Here is a quick look at how each one of the renewable energy systems and technologies was discovered.
Horace de Saussure, a Swiss scientist, is credited with inventing the first technology to harness solar energy in the 1760s. He built a solar collector that shot to fame when Sir John Herschel used it to cook food during his expedition to South Africa in the 1830s.
The solar energy origin and discovery of the photovoltaic effect were purely accidental. In 1839, Edmond Becquerel, a French scientist chanced upon it when conducting experiments with an electrolytic cell. This cell had two metal electrodes placed in an electricity-conducting solution. He noticed that electricity was generated when the cell was exposed to light.
In 1883, Charles Fritts, an American inventor, came up with the first solar cells made from selenium wafers. It wasn’t until 1954 that the silicon photovoltaic cells were developed at Bell labs by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson. The first PV cells had 4% efficiency.
In the late 1950s, Hoffman Electronics improved the technology to boost efficiency to 14%. In 1985, the University of South Wales achieved 20% efficiency for silicon PV cells.
The first wind turbine was built in 1887 by Prof James Blyth, Anderson’s College, Glasgow (presently Strathclyde University). At 10 m height, the cloth-sailed wind turbine supplied electricity to his cottage using the accumulators designed by Camille Alphonse Faure, a Frenchman.
This was closely followed in 1888 by the American inventor Charles Brush. He built a wind turbine to power his home in Ohio.
In 1957, Johannes Juul came up with a horizontal-axis wind turbine design with emergency aerodynamic tip breaks. Most of these features are still used in modern commercial wind turbines.
In 1975, NASA began a wind turbine program to develop utility-scale wind turbines. Among the numerous technological improvements developed by NASA, the most important is the Viterna method that helps to factor in the 3-dimensional effects and stall behavior of wind turbines to gain better control over their performance.
The 19th century witnessed numerous advancements in water turbine technology which ultimately led to the setting up of hydroelectric projects. In 1827, Benoit Fourneyron, a French engineer developed a turbine with 6HP capacity. In 1849. James Francis, a British American engineer developed the prototype of the modern wind turbine. In the 1870s, Lester Allan Pelton, an American inventor developed an impulse water turbine, the Pelton wheel.
In 1913, Viktor Kaplan, an Austrian professor developed a propeller-type turbine with adjustable blades known as the Kaplan turbine.
In 1878, the first hydroelectric project came up in Northumberland, England with the capacity to power a single lamp. Four years later, in Wisconsin, USA, the first commercial hydroelectric plant was built.
In the 20th century, the popularity of hydroelectric power reached dizzying heights with design modifications and rapid innovations. In the 1930s, many multi-purpose projects were built in the US including the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams.
By the end of the 20th century, China and Brazil became world leaders in hydropower. The Itaipu Dam with a capacity of 12,600 MW was opened in 1984 in Brazil. Three Gorges Dam in China with a capacity of 22,500 MW and commissioned in 2003 is the world’s largest power plant in terms of installed renewable energy capacity.
The modern use of biomass for electricity generation began in the 19th century with the use of ethanol along with turpentine to power the first engine in 1826. Throughout the 19th century, ethanol continued to be a popular energy source.
As the drilling and refining of oil gained pace, the use of ethanol came down. However, in the first half of the 20th century with the world wars making oil a scarce commodity, ethanol gained in popularity once again. After the end of the second world war, the scarcity of fossil fuels eased up and they became the fuel of choice across the world.
This trend continued until the 1970s when a combination of factors forced the world to search for renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. This brought the attention back to biomass energy.
In 1818, François Jacques de Larderel, a French engineer discovered a new method to extract boric acid from hot springs. Larderello in Tuscany utilized its industrial-scale background in boric acid production to become the first region to generate electricity from geothermal energy commercially in 1913.
After the end of the second world war, geothermal energy gained popularity in the US. In 1960, the world’s largest geothermal power plant was opened in the Geysers, located in the Mayacamas Mountains north of San Francisco. It has 22 power plants extracting geothermal energy from 350 wells.
Why is renewable energy in focus now?
With the development of newer technologies in the extraction and refining of fossil fuels and expansion in their applications, fossil fuels made the world forget about our green energy background. As fossil fuels became more and more popular, renewable energy consumption declined and almost touched zero.
However, the 1970s witnessed a series of events that forced world countries to look for alternatives to fossil fuels. The oil crisis of 1973 was a huge eye-opener when an embargo was imposed on the US by OPEC due to its involvement in the Yom Kippur War. The price of oil shot up by almost 300%.
Again, it was also around this time that scientists woke up to the harmful consequences of burning fossil fuels as well as their finite reserves. It was a jolt from the blue that someday the world will run out of fossil fuel reserves. And, if we continue to use fossil fuels the way we were using, a bigger catastrophe awaits the world. Global warming and climate change can annihilate the human race even before we run out of fossil fuels.
All these had a multi-pronged effect on various industries. Much emphasis was given to the fuel efficiency of vehicles, including renewed interest in mass transit. Another major fallout of these events was the search for renewable energy resources.
As the world’s countries scrambled to deal with the crisis, the scientific community rose to the occasion and came up with discoveries to make traditional energy sources more user-friendly, cheaper, and more efficient.
Countries like the United States betted big on alternative fuels to diversify their energy portfolio to eliminate the chance of getting caught in a similar energy crisis. They invested heavily in the development of technologies to make renewable energy sources more lucrative to the consumer.
Much has been done to wriggle free from the grip of fossil fuels. But the truth is much more can be done and needs to be done to save the earth and the human race from this man-made disaster. A recent study reveals that the United States, home to 5% of the world population, consumes almost 20% of the world’s energy production.
More emphasis needs to be given to energy conservation and raising energy efficiency. When coupled with a national renewable energy plan, there is still hope left for us all.