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Renewable energy - the history

From humble beginnings a few centuries ago to the power sources of the future, renewable energy is fast gaining momentum. Here we will explore how each of the most popular methods of generating renewable energy originated, and the most important developments leading to the technology as we know it today.

Geothermal Energy

20% of the geothermal energy we are able to harvest today was generated during the formation of the earth, while the remainder is believed by many scientists to come from the decay of radioactive isotopes within the core. Geothermal energy has been used in one form or another for thousands of years; palaeolithic humans are said to have used warm springs to bathe themselves, and the oldest known example of a bathing area of this type, built in the 3rd century BC, can be found on Lisan mountain in China. In 1827 geothermal energy was used in industry for the first time to extract boric acid from the volcanic mud which can be found in Larderello, Italy. The first system designed for the heating of multiple areas (known as a district heating system) has been operating in France since the fourteenth century, and hot water generated by geothermal energy has been use to heat Iceland's homes since 1943.

Solar Power

Oil companies began investing in solar power for decades for fear that fossil fuels would run out, but the earliest observation of the photovoltaic effect was made by Heinrich Hertz in 1887. Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize in 1921 for his full explanation of this effect. The first solar cell was engineered in 1954 but the use of solar power really took off with the advent of the space programme in 1958. Over the next few decades numerous small developments would improve the efficiency and bring down the cost of solar cells.


Water power provided the fuel for the advent of agriculture with waterwheels powering small scale processing plants all over the country. The British scientist William George Armstrong created the first documented hydroelectric power system in 1878 to power a lamp in his art gallery. A hydroelectric dam was built at Niagara Falls and began generation of electricity in 1881. Today the USA has over 2000 hydroelectric plants across the country, supplying nearly half of the country's renewable energy.

Wind Power

Like water, windmills have been used in agriculture and naval engineering for millennia. More recently, the 1973 oil crisis spurred the development of wind turbines for production of electricity. Professor James Blyth, working what later became Glasgow's Strathclyde University, was the first to generate electricity by wind power in 1887, and since then wind turbines have become a common feature of our country's landscape and sea line.

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