More than a century ago the great physicians revealed the secrets of turning the sun’s rays into mechanical power, only to see their dream machines collapse from lack of public support. Modern solar engineers must not be doomed to relive their fate.
Charles Smith is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Technology at Appalachian State University, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. His primary area of research is the history of energy.
Many of us assume that the nation’s first serious push to develop renewable fuels was spawned while angry Americans waited in gas lines during the "energy crisis" of the 1970s. Held hostage by the OPEC oil embargo, the country suddenly seemed receptive to warnings from scientists, environmentalists, and even a few politicians to end its over-reliance on finite coal and oil reserves or face severe economic distress and political upheaval.
But efforts to design and construct devices for supplying renewable energy actually began some 100 years before that turbulent time–ironically, at the very height of the Industrial Revolution, which was largely founded on the promise of seemingly inexhaustible supplies of fossil fuels. Contrary to the prevailing opinion of the day, a number of engineers questioned the practice of an industrial economy based on nonrenewable energy and worried about what the world’s nations would do after exhausting the fuel supply.
More important, many of these visionaries did not just provide futuristic rhetoric but actively explored almost all the renewable energy options familiar today. In the end, most decided to focus on solar power, reasoning that the potential rewards outweighed the technical barriers. In less than 50 years, these pioneers developed an impressive array of innovative techniques for capturing solar radiation and using it to produce the steam that powered the machines of that era. In fact, just before World War I, they had outlined all of the solar thermal conversion methods now being considered. Unfortunately, despite their technical successes and innovative designs, their work was largely forgotten for the next 50 years in the rush to develop fossil fuels for an energy-hungry world.
Now, a century later, history is repeating itself. After following the same path as the early inventors–in some cases reinventing the same techniques–contemporary solar engineers have arrived at the same conclusion: solar power is not only possible but eminently practical, not to mention more environmentally friendly. Alas, once again, just as the technology has proven itself from a practical standpoint, public support for further development and implementation is eroding, and solar power could yet again be eclipsed by conventional energy technologies.