Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Renewable Energy, Proven Technology Throughout History

As time continues to move forward we often forget to look back and remember where things began. Although significant, our historical reliance on renewable energy and the impact advancements in this area had are often forgotten. A brief look at some of the most significant and interesting examples of this reliance follows.  Perhaps we had it right the first time!

Wind Power

Perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of renewable energy throughout history, the windmill has had a long history of innovation. This innovation has developed the windmill from a single use energy source in the 10th century, to the highly technical and versatile wind turbines we see today. Although the use of windmills dates back 2000 years in some regions of the world, the first documented case of a windmill being used for pumping water and grinding grain is in Persia during the 10th century. This innovation was soon developed to a fuller extent around the 15th century in Western Europe. Near the end of the 16th century, the windmill reached its most efficient state in the Netherlands. Driven by a need for land reclamation, these windmills were the largest and most efficient ever created. Able to grind grain and spices, saw wood, and pump water, these windmills were vital for the very survival of Dutch people. Without windmills to pump water from the land, these farmers would have had no means to generate crops. With the emergence of steam engines in the 19th century, dependence on windmills gradually decreased.

However, in the pioneer setting of the US windmill technology was further developed. Sparked by the first commercially successful windmill, created by Daniel Halladay in 1854, the use of windmills in the US saw even further technological advancement. Halladay’s windmill was the first with a self-governing design, able to rotate to match the direction of wind. Soon after this innovation, further innovations occurred and the windmill saw widespread adoption.  Primarily used for pumping water, the smaller windmill reached six million installations in the US alone from 1850 to 1970. With the first windmill capable of generating electricity being built in the US during 1888 by Charles F. Brush, the use of electricity generating windmills reached commercial success in the early 20th century. With the Jacobs Wind Electric Company pioneering the way in 1927, hundreds of thousands of wind electric systems were in place in the US by the 1940s; providing off the grid rural farmers with a source of electricity cheaper than gasoline fired generators. However, as the energy needs of these farmers increased, the extension of major electrical grids to rural areas displaced the need for wind generators. Once again, reliance on windmills deteriorated due to the cheaper electrical producing abilities of petroleum fired power plants.


Wind energy is also responsible for an innovation that shaped the very presence of humans around the world. The use of sail power led to an unprecedented era of exploration and trade. Perhaps one of the earliest applications of any energy source for human purposes, Egyptian people utilized sails for transportation along the Nile River as far back as 3500 B.C.E. Gradually developing over the centuries to larger ships and more efficient sails, the Romans and other civilizations began to utilize sail power on a large scale for trade and transportation in the Mediterranean. During this time, ship designs became larger and were able to move more goods and travel further. The first to use sail power for global exploration, Vikings were able to travel unprecedented distances with sail powered ships around 1000 C.E; reaching North America for the first time. Although this exploration occurred for the next few centuries, it was not until the late 16th century that the sail had the most significant effect on the world. The combination of exploration, warfare, and trade on a large scale, from the 16th century to the mid 19th century, witnessed one of largest migrations of people in history. Without the aid of wind powered ships, this migration would not have been possible on the same scale, if at all. As with many historical innovations involving renewable power, the emergence of a fossil fuel alternative led to the end of wind power dominance. In 1862, during the Battle of Hampton Roads, the C.S.S Virginia was able to prove its complete dominance over wind powered vessels. Completely destroying two large sailing ships, this iron-clad, steam engine powered ship changed the face of naval warfare. Soon after, the use of wooden sailing ships dwindled as the benefits of versatile and stronger steam powered ships were exploited.

Hydro Power

Another technology that has seen a history of innovation much like that of the windmill is the watermill, or waterwheel. With some of the earliest documented uses occurring in 100-200 B.C.E, the basic concept of the waterwheel has been widely changed and adapted to the current equivalent of hydroelectric dams.  Being adopted by the Romans for crushing grain, sawing wood, tanning leather, smelting iron, and other processes, the watermill quickly made its way across continental Europe. Emerging independently in Ancient China around 100 C.E, the waterwheel was also utilized for purposes of crushing grain and forging iron. A few centuries later, the emergence of waterwheels in the Middle East had also made a major impact. By the 11th century, waterwheels were being used for industrial purposes in all Islamic regions. Remaining competitive with steam engines during the industrial revolution, the limited accessibility of waterwheels eventually rendered watermills uncompetitive. Although this technology did not survive competing against cheaper sources of electricity, the basic concept of the waterwheel has survived in today’s hydraulic turbines. With the first commercial scale hydroelectric dam going into operation in 1882, the utilization of hydroelectricity as a power source has grown constantly; now one of the largest sources of energy supply worldwide.

Solar Power

Benefiting from a greatly increased adoption rate for heating and cooling usage in recent years, the use of solar heating is not itself a recent technological advancement. Dating back to 400 B.C.E, Greek people began to orient their homes on the side of hills, allowing them to benefit from daytime heat storage being released at night. With the implementation of glass windows, the Romans further exploited the abilities of sunlight in heating homes. This innovation in Rome also led to the first use of glasshouses for growing plants and seeds with exotic origins. Even with this innovation however, the use of solar power for heating did not undergo any major advancements until more recent centuries.

Only recently becoming one of the fastest growing renewable energy technologies, the use of solar power for generating electricity actually has long history of innovation. In 1861, solar energy was first used to generate power with Auguste Mouchout’s steam engine. This engine utilized concentrated solar power with mirrors to produce steam; however, as coal was a much cheaper alternative, this invention was not able to develop further. First recognized for its potential to generate electricity by the French Physicist Edmond Becquere in 1838, the photoelectric effect underwent many studies over the next century without much major notice or commercial success. This even included a study on photovoltaic effects by Albert Einstein in 1905, which won a Nobel Prize in 1921. The actual study of solar cells actually dates back to 1876, when it was discovered that selenium exposed to sunlight could actually generate electricity. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s with the discovery of the silicon cell, that solar power gained truly credible notice for its potential of capturing the sun’s energy. This led to the use of solar cells on satellites in the late 1950’s. After many more decades, the development of solar photovoltaics has finally reached its current state of commercial success and rapid growth.

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