Solar is Not an Infant Industry (Part I–Pre-Twentieth Century)
“Not satisfied with such direct benefits as he derives from sunshine, man has developed numerous ways of utilizing solar radiation indirectly and of appropriating energies other than his own.”
– Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industry (Harper & Brothers, 1933), p. 43.
“Although much interest in the scientific community has been focused on solar energy at various times in history, widespread development of solar power equipment has never been achieved—primarily because of the high cost of developing solar power compared to that of technologies utilizing cheap fossil fuels.”
- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 379.
Solar electricity has a long history, not unlike its cousin windpower. The infant industry argument does not apply, and solar’s diluteness and intermittency suggest that this off-grid starter energy will not be an on-grid resource this century if not far beyond.
But the hype continues. Yesterday at Climate Progress, Stephen Lacey argued in The Real Impact of Loan Guarantees: “Solar Is Now Bankable” and “Becoming Part of a Much Broader Capital Market“:
With panel prices hitting record lows and performance of projects steadily improving, solar photovoltaics have become increasingly attractive to large investors. Investment in solar has surged to unprecedented levels due to interest from large Wall Street banks, investors like Warren Buffett, and technology firms like Google.
Does Mr. Lacey want to get into the weeds of the cost and reliability of solar power, or is his just cover bluster for a politician of his liking to get over “big green lie” Solyndra?
Here are some quotations that put solar in its proper historical context, just in case President Obama does not share any during his visit today at the 48-megawatt Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility in Boulder City, Nevada. Part II tomorrow will look at solar’s history in the twentieth century–and the hyperbole of solar when energy politics entered the scene in the 1970s.
17th Century Solar
“Northern Europeans started experimenting with solar collection devices in the seventeenth century to protect tropical plants brought home by explorers from distant lands. Two hundred years later, the first commercial solar product—a water heater—came on the market in the United States.”
- Cynthia Shea, “Renewable Energy: Today’s Contribution, Tomorrow’s Promise,” Worldwatch Paper 81, Worldwatch Institute, January 1988, p. 27.
18th Century Solar
“Swiss scientist Nicholas de Saussure (1740-99) constructed the first solar ‘hot box’ or oven, and used it for cooking. . . . During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other experimenters devised more sophisticated methods and machines for harnessing solar energy.”
- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 362.
19th Century Solar
“The solar photovoltaic (PV) cell . . . employs the ‘photoelectric effect’ discovered by Edward Becquerel in 1839, using semiconductor chips to create electric current.”
- Seth Dunn, Micropower: The Next Electrical Era (Washington: Worldwatch Institute, 2000), p. 27.
“The French solar engine pioneer [Augustin] Mouchot demonstrated the art of cooking beef in a solar oven at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878.”
- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 374.
“In an 1878 letter, [John] Ericsson concluded that ‘the fact is . . . that although the heat is obtained for nothing, so extensive, costly, and complex is the concentration apparatus that solar steam is many times more costly than steam produced by burning coal.’”
- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 364.
Into the 2oth Century …
“In 1908, [Frank] Shuman formed the Sun Power Company and convinced English financiers to back his efforts to build larger plants using the flat-plate collectors. In 1911, he demonstrated a plant in Philadelphia with more than 10,000 feet of collector surface. It produced 816 pounds of steam per hour and was used to operate a steam-driven water pump.”
- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 365.
“Between the turn of the century and the 1930s in the United States, the first widespread commercial use of solar energy came into being with the installation of solar water heaters in California and Florida. . . . Tens of thousands of these heaters were sold in both states until the middle 1950s.”
- Wilson Clark, Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1974), p. 370.