Renewable energy has been at the forefront of scientific research and development for decades and has changed rapidly as technology has become more accessible and more advanced. We have gone through waves of understanding the options that the earth has provided for us, and as we understood more, we have put more reliance on any resource we could find. Unfortunately, some of those resources have been less-than ideal, and while they may have helped us evolve our daily lives, they have caused bigger problems that we are now having to make up for, like climate change, endangered species, and other environmental issues.
Luckily, there have been solutions popping up around every corner, but what we did not realize before is that these solutions have been around for much longer than we thought, and they are easily accessible and incredibly efficient! There is a deep and full history of the production of renewable energy, and it starts over 4,000 years ago.
Like most subjects that date this far back, we do not have too much information to go off when drawing conclusions about the renewable energy practices. However, we do know that the first waterwheels that energized granaries were in China and Europe around the 2nd century, B.C.E., and they were used alongside more laborious methods, like donkeys or slaves pulling spokes to turn a wheel, especially in Europe. These waterwheels were horizontal and were not very efficient. Waterwheels as we are more familiar with today were first documented around 14 C.E. in Rome, by an engineer and architect named Vitruvius. This waterwheel was used for irrigation and for transporting drinking water to villages. As the opportunity for more use was seized, waterwheels were used to power sawmills, pumps, forge bellows, textile mills, and other technological movement.
Records were kept on the number of installations around Europe, and in 1086, a survey in England counted over 5,000 waterwheel installations, and France had 245 by the year 1175. In Arles, France, there was an installation with 16 wheels, each 7 feet in diameter, and it is estimated that it could meet the water needs of 80,000 people.
The same technology that was used in waterwheels continues to be the basis for efficient hydroelectricity plants today, even if they are much fancier or appear to be more complex. Waterwheels and small hydroelectricity plants continued to grow in popularity and effectiveness over the centuries, but the usage of the technology slowed around the Industrial Revolution due to coal burning and oil drilling. These nonrenewable resources were the main means of energy production until the Hoover Dam was built in 1935. It was the largest hydroelectric facility in the United States at its time, and it employed over 5,000 people during its build, which cost $165 million. At full capacity, it can hold enough water to cover the entire state of Connecticut with 10 feet of water.
Similar to waterpower, wind power also dates back centuries. People along the Nile were using wind to propel boats on the Nile River as early as 5000 B.C.E. Wind powered water pumps were used in China, and in Persia and the Middle East, blades made of woven reeds were grinding grain. Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria used a windmill to power a musical instrument in the first century C.E., and wind has been pushing ships across the sea for as long as sea travel has been possible. After spreading around southern Asia, windmills permanently found their way to central European engineers. They then became much more industrialized, and they began to power several types of machinery across the continent.
After the 11th century, there were over 100,000 windmills in England and Central Europe, and the 1400s brought the Age of Discovery—voyagers settled around the world and established new trade routes, all powered by the wind. In 1590, windmills were at their peak popularity, and they were dominating energy production in the Netherlands, mainly used to pump water and mill grain. The technology developed there helped shape the way we still build turbines, though they were far from the advanced turbines we have today.
The Industrial Revolution of the 17 and 1800s brought steam and electricity that extended the abilities of the windmills even further despite the rise of coal burning and oil drilling, and the continued use over the following centuries brought three main types of windmills: post mills, tower mills, and smock mills. These three types were seen in over 200,000 mills in Europe. The first windmill to generate electricity was built by Charles F. Brush in 1888 in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1927, the first commercial sale of wind turbines sold to a group of farmers. By the 1930s, there were over 600,000 windmills across the United States.
Water and wind were the only renewable energy resources that were understood and built upon to predate the Industrial Revolution, and the burning of coal and the harvesting of fossil fuels created problems for our earth’s ozone layer and our air quality, not to mention adverse side effects that impact the oceans and the wildlife around the world. There is also the pressing issue that as these resources are classified as “nonrenewable,” meaning that one day, we will run out of them.
Fortunately, quickly following the Industrial Revolution, another discovery was made in the line of renewable resources: solar energy. The first solar system was invented in France by inventor Augustin Mouchot in 1860. He was already onto the idea that we would run out of coal one day, and he decided to do something about it. On the subject of using solar energy, he said, “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 recognize that this idea is very ancient and its slow development across the centuries has given birth to various curious devices.”
This ancient practice of using solar energy can be seen as early as the 7th century B.C.E., when people were lighting fires with sunlight and a form of magnifying glass. A few centuries later in the 3rd century B.C.E., the Greeks and Romans lit torches with mirrors that were commonly referred to as “burning mirrors,” and these same mirrors were documented in China in 20 B.C.E. The sun was also used to heat rooms with the concept of sunrooms appearing in Roman bathhouses, and in the 1200s, the Anasazi people in pre-colonial North America built their homes in ways that purposefully captured heat from the sun in the winter months. Later, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, sunlight was used to heat ovens during long trips and could be used to power steamboats. While none of these practices may look like the kind of solar power we are familiar with today, they all are using an unending resource to address needs and to make life better, which is what renewable energy is all about.
The technology of solar panels was further developed by William Grylls Adams, a professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s College (now known as Columbia University). They found that they could use selenium cells to generate electricity with sunlight and their discovery was fundamental for the continued adaptation of panel technology, including the 1905 photoelectric effect perfected by Albert Einstein. The photoelectric effect showed how light carries energy through electrons, and Einstein won a Nobel Prize in 1921, especially honored for his contributions to solar energy. The understanding of these physics is how we still produce solar panels today through photovoltaic processes.
Solar technology grew and changed quickly, and it continues to do so to this day. In 1958, solar technology was installed on a United States satellite and launched into space, 11 years before the moon landing. Since then, photovoltaic efficiency has skyrocketed from 8% to 34.5% efficiency, solar-powered airplanes have had successful flights, solar panels have been installed on the White House (twice!), and the price has dropped by at least 10% every year since 1980. Solar energy is one of the most accessible for non-commercial use, with over 2 million systems installed in the United States alone and projections at 4 million in only 2 years. Solar energy is the fastest growing renewable energy resource in the world, followed closely by wind power. In fact, the two together could create enough energy for the entire world if enough installations were built.
Newer technology allows us to recognize how we can use other resources, like geothermal and biomass energy. These resources, while newer in their advancements, have equally ancient beginnings. Geothermal energy was first understood through natural springs in the 1800s, commercialized by Asa Thompson charging $1 each for the use of three springs in a wooden tub as baths, and this developed into settling near the warm waters, piping hot water from hot springs to town buildings, and geothermal power plants, with the first plant in Larderello, Italy, in 1904. In Boise, Idaho, there are currently 4 district heating systems that are geothermal and provide heat to more than 5 million square feet of residential, commercial, and government space, and across the United States, there are 17 systems. Over the last decade, the United States has developed organizations to help with regulation, production, and research, and it is a growing field of energy that has a bright future.
Energy from biomass was in use as early as people were burning wood to cook and maintain heat, and it was used to fuel lamps in the 1800s before the lightbulb. Burning wood is still the largest resource of biomass today, and other resources are food crops, plants that are grassy or woody, resides that are left from agriculture or forestry, algae that is rich in oil, and the organic parts of wastes. It can be used for biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel, biopower for heat and electricity generation, or bioproducts like plastics and other petroleum-based products. During the Industrial Revolution, the scarcity of wood due to deforestation was actually one of the reasons that the energy industry turned to coal and oil, but the world has more recently rediscovered the abilities of biomass to create energy.
Blue Raven Solar’s Contribution
Blue Raven Solar is proud to be part of an industry that is helping the world be cleaner and more efficient. We strive to always represent the solar and renewable energy industry with expertise, the best possible products and services, and hassle-free installation processes. As renewable energy continues to grow in ability and accessibility, we hope to continue to be able to act quickly to bring the most updated and efficient solar technologies to homeowners around the United States. Thanks to the hard work of scientists and engineers for centuries, we are able to make a difference in the health of the world we live in today. You can join us and become part of the change—get a free quote today!