History of Sustainable Technologies
Ask questions and provide feedback
other

* history
Public policy
Dig deeper
wind power | solar power | water power

As soon as our human ancestors discovered how to convert natural energies into other useable forms: wood (solid biofuel) into heat through controlled fire, diversion of streams for irrigation, wind effects for passive cooling) they were using renewable energy. Before the perfect storm of electrical science combined with the discovery of vast fossil fuel resources, humans relied on renewable energy sources as a necessity.

Wind Power
The oldest form of renewable energy as mentioned is solid biofuels. Wind perhaps is a close runner-up. First used as an engine for water transportation (sails), there is evidence of very early wind mills in use 2,500 years ago when wind was used to turn ancient Tibetan prayer wheels.

Wind power for mechanical use (to run land machinery such as water pumps and grain mills) saw its first widespread practical application in Persia around the 9th century.

Windmills proliferated throughout Europe in the 12th century evolving into the quintessential image of the Smock Mill that we recognize today. The fantail was invented in 1745 by Edmund Lee in England. This allowed the main turbine to turn automatically to face the prevailing winds. At about the same time, additional sails to the standard four were added which had the result of increasing efficiencies, though the added weight had to be taken into account in the design of the machinery.

An interesting type of wind turbine, the Éolienne Bollée, was designed in France by Auguste-Sylvain Bollée in the 1870's.

Soon thereafter the first use of wind turbines to generate electricity is documented in 1887, first in Glasgow and then in Cleveland, where Charles Brush's 12 KW capacity turbine remained in use until 1908.

The first megawatt capacity turbine was the 1.25 MW two-blade Smith-Putnam turbine in Vermont, which operated for 1,100 hours in 1941 before a small technical failure was not fixed because of wartime material shortages and the project was abandoned. Nothing of this scale was attempted again until the fuel crisis of the 1970's reinvigorated ideas about wind powered electricity production. Much of the experimental work in the 70's and 80's was carried out by NASA.

Solar Power
There are many ancient documented uses of solar power for practical purposes, especially in architecture for passive heating. Glass was used to concentrate solar energy as early as 400 B.C.

Solar thermal power (the sun used to heat water) has documented practical applications starting in the late 19th century when Clarence Kemp patented and became very successful selling solar water heaters to homes.

The photovoltaic effect was first observed by Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel in 1839. The first solar cell was constructed by Charles Fritts in the 1880s with a conversion efficiency of about 1%. The easy access to fossil fuels arguably contributed to a lag in interest in the photovoltaic effect. It wasn't until 1954 when three researchers at Bell Laboratories, following up on the 1941 silicon solar cell work of Russell Ohl, developed a 6% efficient solar panels. Large advances were made during the space race.

There is a very interesting photo documentary of early solar technology in the United States made by LIFE Magazine. You can see our story and a link to the original here.

Water Power
The Romans, and probably various people before them, took advantage of geothermal energy to heat their homes.

There was an interesting boom in the development of wave power on the west coast of the United States in the late 19th century. At the same time there was interest in developing tidal power as well. A complete history of these efforts is documented here by Christine Miller.