You’re reading a post about solar energy. What does that mean to you? You might think that solar energy is something new and innovative. But in reality, solar energy has been around for centuries. It’s just been a matter of time before it was refined and optimized for mass-market adoption.
Let’s dive into the ways solar energy isn’t new, shall we?
Wind energy is the movement of air that generates kinetic energy. The concept of capturing this free energy source and using it to generate electricity has been around for centuries. In the 17th century, Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens carried out the first known wind tunnel experiment, which is how we know what wind tunnels are. In the 19th century, British engineer James Blyth established the science of aerodynamics, which paved the way for the modern wind turbine. In 1886, English inventor William Robert Wood designed the first known wind turbine with two blades, which allowed for greater torque and speed than its single-bladed counterparts. In the 20th century, further innovations in this area made wind energy a practical and viable energy source for homes and businesses.
Hydrofoils were first used in the 14th century to generate power. By using the waves from a storm to push a piece of wood back and forth, a water mill would turn a turbine, which would generate electricity. In the 21st century, wave power still relies heavily on watermills, but now that generators are smaller and more portable, we see these devices placed at more unconventional sites, such as marinas, golf courses, and even deserts.
If you think that the ways in which solar energy isn’t new are depressing, hold on to your hats because the next few updates are going to blow your mind. Before we dive into the next section, let’s take a quick trip back in time to the 17th century.
It’s estimated that heat from the Earth is sufficient to power all of human kind for days, and in some places, like Iceland, harnessing this energy source is an everyday task. But even in places where natural heat is not sufficient to generate power, manmade geothermal energy comes in the form of heated water reservoirs that supply heat to homes and businesses. The concept of using steam to generate electricity goes back to the early 1800s, when an Englishman named William Henry named the practice ‘geothermic power’. Even today, at the height of the Cold War, manmade geothermal energy provided around 20% of the United Kingdom’s electricity needs. And now, with renewables reaching record highs and the world eager to reduce its carbon footprint, geothermal energy has once again become a viable source of power. The world is changing.
While some may still doubt the ability of wireless power to supplant existing energy sources, those who’ve experimented with it have found that it’s more efficient and has fewer negative impacts than traditional methods of power distribution. Several companies, like Elon Musks’s SpaceX, are working hard to make satellite energy a viable energy source for homes and businesses. Just last year, they successfully launched their first batch of Starlink internet satellites into orbit. These satellites are equipped with hardware necessary to conduct satellite-to-ground communication and transfer of small packets of data, effectively acting as miniature cell phones in space. When these satellites come into range of a ground station, they use their onboard camera to snap a photo and transmit it to the ground. Once the ground station receives the image, it can connect the satellite with an electrical grid to begin providing electricity to those in need. This scenario is not that far-fetched: nearly 10 million smart phones could be used to beam pictures to a ground station, theoretically providing enough juice to power a small city.
Tidal power is the energy that arises from the gravitational pull of the moon on the waters of the Earth. It’s been estimated that, if we use the full capacity of the tides, we could generate enough electricity to power all of human kind. And since the oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, there’s a lot of potential energy lying in wait.
Tidal power has been around for centuries, and it’s been used to generate electricity since at least the early 1800s. In the early 1900s, Scottish engineers developed a machine, called a ‘tidal power plant’, that harnessed this energy source. These power plants would consist of two counter-rotating drums, one above the other. As the upper drum rotated, it would draw liquid from a reservoir and discharge it into the lower drum, generating electricity. In the 2010s, tidal power transitioned from being an expensive niche technology to something more affordable and accessible.
While solar energy relies on the rays of the sun to generate electricity, mirrored energy harnesses the power of the rays reflected back from a surface. Since the 1800s, engineers have experimented with using the electromagnetic force, or the push and pull of magnets, to generate electricity. While this may sound like a futuristic fantasy, the ability of magnets to generate electricity has been known for centuries. The difference today is that we can exploit this energy in a way that’s practical and beneficial to all.
In the 1800s, Scottish engineer James Blyth developed a system of galvanic cells, which are mirrored-energy devices, based on the action of magnets. He called this system ‘electromagnetic theory of galvanic electricity’, and it was one of the first systems to generate and store electricity for use on a regular basis. In Blyth’s system, electricity was generated by a force, which he called ‘electromagnetic action’, that was exerted on a magnet when it was in motion or moving objects that were made of iron or steel. Blyth’s invention effectively put the concept of generating electricity from the wind within reach of the common person. Since its invention, the term ‘galvanism’ has been applied to electricity generation using magnets.
While many may still think that the only viable energy source is solar or wind-generated electricity, the thermal energy of hot objects, whether natural or man-made, offers a potentially cheaper and more abundant alternative. With most power plants using fossil fuels to generate electricity, there’s a lot of heat that’s left over. This heat can be converted to usable energy through a process called thermodynamically efficient heat conversion or heat recycling. This process allows for greater energy generation per unit of fuel compared to traditional methods, making it a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option. The ability to harness and utilize waste heat was first demonstrated in 1785 when Scottish physicist James Prescott, known for inventing the Thermos thermometer, showed that it was possible to generate power using only the heat from a burning candle.
Which of these methods of power generation does not involve solar energy?
The abovementioned technologies offer a wide range of applications, from providing electricity for homes and businesses to fueling vehicles and aircraft. In some cases, these technologies have been around for centuries, while in others, they’re more modern inventions, and many are still in their infancy. Not all of these energy sources are viable or affordable on an everyday basis, but with each new generation, we see a drop in cost and an increase in practicality. At the same time, we’re also seeing more energy-efficient designs.
The abovementioned methods of power generation do not involve solar energy. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth talking about, and it doesn’t mean that they’ll disappear anytime soon. All it means is that we now have a better understanding of how to generate electricity without the sun’s help, and that knowledge will continue to evolve as long as people are looking for ways to generate power.