How Did Renewable Energy Start?


Humans have always relied on the power of renewable energy. Thousands of years ago, people were using waterwheels—today we would call this “hydropower”—to harness the energy generated by flowing rivers and streams.

A waterwheel works by means of a rotating shaft and paddles. The turning of this mechanism transforms the kinetic energy of moving water into mechanical or (today) electrical energy. The energy produced has, over millennia, helped us mill grain, process textiles, and carry out a variety of industrial activities.

There are other notable early sources of renewable energy: Windmills, perfected in the 16th century CE in the Netherlands, developed in Central Asia, and the Mideast in early medieval times.

And using the power of the sun was nothing new when, in the 19th century, the French scientist Augustin Mouchot developed what is likely the world’s first operational solar-powered engine. Mouchot exhibited his invention at the Paris Exhibition in 1878. He used a parabolic mirror to direct the sun’s rays onto a boiler, which in turn set a steam engine in motion.

The hydroelectric, wind and solar-powered devices in use today draw on the same basic principles of using the naturally occurring, readily available forces present in the world around us to generate clean, renewable energy. The main difference is that, over the decades, scientists and engineers have come up with increasingly sophisticated, sustainable, and reliable methods for producing energy from renewable sources.

In 2020, about 12 percent of all the primary energy consumed in the US was drawn from renewables, and they were furthermore responsible for 20 percent of all the energy generated in the country.

The History of Solar Power

In 1876, William Grylls Adams of King’s College, London, demonstrated how a sample of selenium generated electricity when it was struck by the sun’s rays. Although the selenium was not capable of converting sunlight into quantities of electricity large enough to power any sort of device, Adams’ discovery was one of the major milestones along the way toward the development of today’s solar power industry.

His key finding was that solid material was capable of turning light into electrical power, without heat and without any other mechanism involved. Then, in 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts created the first selenium-based solar cell wafers, leading some historians to credit him as the inventor of solar cells.

In the 1950s, a Bell Laboratories team developed the first practical silicon solar cell. Silicon was more efficient than selenium and able to convert the sun’s energy into sufficient amounts of electricity to power machinery.

In a demonstration of the process in April 1954, the team showed how its solar panel was able to power a radio transmitter and a miniature Ferris wheel. Modern solar cells are still fashioned from silicon, rather than selenium.

The 1950s and ‘60s also saw the use of solar panels in space, as American and Russian satellites used solar panels as power sources.

The History of Wind Power

Scottish electrical engineer James Blyth spent the 1880s researching the use of wind power as a means of generating and storing energy. Blyth’s work led to his construction in 1887 of a horizontally oriented (in contrast to today’s vertically oriented) wind turbine. His invention stored the electricity it produced in batteries he called “accumulators.”

Blyth delivered an influential paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1891, advocating for the advantages of developing renewable energy sources. His particular focus was on the wind, but he also mentioned the benefits of wave energy.

In 1888, the first windmill used to produce electricity in the US went into operation in Ohio. Two decades later, Denmark was home to dozens of electricity-generating wind turbines, and by the 1930s they had become a common feature in the US

This was the era that saw the development of Jacobs Wind Electric Co., Inc., a factory in Minneapolis. The Jacobs brothers, who crafted wind turbines and sold them to farmers without access to urban power grids, are often credited as the founders of the first American renewable energy company.

Marcellus Jacobs invented the first-ever fault-tolerant wind-driven electrical generating system that was stable and durable to use. His company sold them throughout the world—even in Antarctica—from the 1930s to the 1950s.

In the 1970s, NASA got in the game. The space agency researched the development of a number of the same type of multi-megawatt wind turbine components that are still in use today. The large-scale turbines their teams developed increased equipment diameter and power generation capacities many times over.

In 1975, the US saw its first wind farm begin operation, generating power sufficient to maintain more than 4,000 residences. By 1982, four wind farms were operating in the US, and only two years later, there were 15. In 2012, there were more than 800, and wind power took first place as the country’s leading source of new power capacity.

The History of Hydropower

As for hydroelectric power, the completion of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in 1935 was a major event in human history. The dam, the largest in the US, was able to provide Arizona, Las Vegas, and the southern part of California with a reliable supply of water.

It also gave Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other cities a sustainable source of electrical power, allowing them to expand in terms of both industry and population. The dam continues operation as a central source of hydroelectric power, producing some 4 billion kWh annually, an energy supply sufficient to serve 1.3 million people.

The US government has always been a major source for the development and use of hydroelectric power. The Bureau of Reclamation, established in 1902 to manage water resources and develop hydroelectric installations in the western states, is still one of the leading hydroelectric producers in the nation.

Throughout the 1920s, the Army Corps of Engineers built hydroelectric plants, and the Corps remains a major supplier of power in the nation. And thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the US continued to put massive support behind the construction and maintenance of hydropower facilities, many of which remain in use today.

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