When I was starting to get into renewables, a simple question occurred to me that started a whole chain of destructive circular online procrastination research. A few minutes of googling produces hundreds of modern solar projects, like the Solar Decathalon or Apple’s partnership with First Solar earlier this week, but few results come up from before the 1970s. It begs a question. And that question is:
Why had no one thought to harness the energy of the sun before?
I feel that I should mention that this ended up being an incredibly egocentric question. Perhaps solar in its highly technologic form is only now becoming a viable means of producing energy, but it was also the FIRST way we EVER produced energy.
Generally the history of solar stems from 7th Century BC when we concentrated the sun’s heat with glass and/or mirrors to light fires. A very famous example of this was Archimedes’ “Heat Ray” which was used during the Siege of Syracuse (an old Greek city-state) to destroy enemy ships (Rome) with fire from concentrated sunlight. The Greek navy re-created the experiment in 1973 and successfully set fire to a wooden boat at 50 yards. Greenhouses, Feng Shui type house designs to take advantage of the warmth of the sun, creating fires for religious ceremonies – these are all ways we’ve harnessed solar energy for human purposes in the past. The photovoltaic effect, what we typically think of as modern solar energy, was discovered in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel – by contrast, the first use of oil in its modern day form – the oil well – was first discovered by Edwin Drake almost exactly 20 years later in Pennsylvania in 1859.
For a very cool history of Solar Energy, check out this timeline created by the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy from the US Department of Energy: Timeline of Solar Energy