A Free-Market Energy Blog

Solar is Not an Infant Industry (Part I–Pre-Twentieth Century)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- March 21, 2012

“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 overbig 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.


  1. Mike Giberson  

    I don’t find that centuries old stories about solar ovens have much relevance to the question of whether or not solar electric power is an “infant industry” or not. But it hardly matters, as arguments for protecting infant industries are bad economics anyway.

    At best it is state-driven industrial policy where political elites and bureaucrats employ their values and combined wisdom to displace the knowledge, plans, and values of millions of consumers, with the profits of success captured by the favored industry and its political protectors and the costs of failures imposed on consumers unable to escape political mandates. A technology could be 1,000 years old or 10 days old — industrial policy is still bad economics and bad policy.


  2. rbradley  

    Thanks Mike.

    I think the infant industry point is that inventors and entrepreneurs have been ‘working’ solar for centuries and, indeed, solar is the mother and father of energy. Part II tomorrow on 20th century developments will offer much more insight into how solar technologies matured–and then how beginning in the 1970s with government involvement skyrocketing solar became badly hyped as a primary, on-grid energy source.

    Note, however, that off-grid solar has a market niche aside from government subsidy.


  3. Alex  

    In my country we have a saying describing a futile activity having no economic or other type of value whatsoever: >Shovelling sunshine.<


  4. rbradley  

    Oh, today is Obama solar day:

    2:40 PM The President arrives Las Vegas, Nevada
    Local Event Time: 11:40AM PST McCarran International Airport
    Open Press

    4:10 PM The President tours Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility
    Local Event Time: 1:10PM PST Boulder City, Nevada
    Open Press

    4:20 PM The President delivers remarks at Copper Mountain Solar 1 Facility on his Administration’s focus on diversifying our energy portfolio Local Event Time: 1:20PM PST
    Boulder City, Nevada Open Press


  5. Greg Rehmke  

    Let people purchase power from solar if they want. The core problem is government subsidies, tax policies, regulations, and other interventions in the power production and distribution industry. Power is dirt cheap for middle income and wealthy people. If they want to purchase power from solar or wind, and pay true cost prices, we should say okay (or say “you’re a fool, but okay…”) and work to end local power monopolies, regulations, and zoning restrictions for regionally and locally-produced alternative energy.

    Solar and wind power technologies can be fun high-tech gadgets, once the technologies are de-politicized. I have a solar-powered water fountain and I enjoy seeing it spring to life with the sun comes out (briefly) in Seattle. But through the winter I refuse to turn on my heat at home because I hate being forced to pay high local gas monopoly prices demanded as millions are poured into showcase wind projects in central Washington. Forcing people to pay for stuff they dislike or think immoral really riles people.

    When public policy groups push for canceling funding for solar and wind projects, yet leave the local power monopolies in place that route forced power payments to questionable nuclear power (or administration-heavy coal, and gas), the system still isn’t fair for consumers who want freedom to buy the power the think is best.


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  9. Tyler  

    It is now April 9, 2023 and the arguments against solar power now look as quaint and myopic as that old wag telling everyone, “if God has meant for men to fly, He would have given us wings!”

    Solar energy generation with battery storage is now the CHEAPEST form of electrical generation available to humanity, thanks to years of subsidies and “industrial policy.”

    I’m all for efficiency and conservation as well- and it turns out there’s an added bonus; electric motors are between two and five times more efficient than infernal combustion engines.

    From the perspective of today, it is high time to stop subsidizing the production of fossil fuels and let the energy chips fall where they may.


    • rbradley  

      Off the grid, I agree. Energy where you cannot plug anything in… And propane is not available.

      On the grid, solar fails and has always failed because of energy density and scale economies of central station power plants.

      True in the 1880s … true today. This is why government subsidies, led by the ITC, and net metering, etc. are required.

      On fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S., not much remains and does not need to remain. Yes, government neutrality and ” let the energy chips fall where they may.”


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