Renewable energy has a fascinating timeline. As with most sciences, the science of renewable energy builds upon itself throughout history with each theory and finding contributing to the next.
When we consider renewable energy today, our minds often think of vast wind farms or advanced technologies like floating solar panels. However, as with most things, renewable energy has far more humble beginnings. This is why we have built a timeline of renewable energy from its inception in 200 BC to today as the world seeks to transition to renewable energy entirely through the global green energy transition.
Read on for some of the seminal moments in the rich history of renewable energy.
200 BC: Waterwheels
When you think about renewable energy, you may immediately consider sleek, futuristic machines but that is not how it all began.
Waterwheels are ancient devices that generate power from flowing water. The falling water’s force rotates the wheel which moves the machines attached to the shaft of the wheel.
This was the first recorded use of renewable energy.
Energy powers the economy. Thus, it is often thought of in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution. However, windmills powered industry long before the steam engine was even a distant thought.
In the 1590s, the Dutch were using windmills to grind grains and pump water. They made agriculture far easier which is why you can still see relics of these centuries-old windmills around Holland today.
1839: The discovery of the photovoltaic effect
In 1839, French physicist, Edmond Becquerel first discovered the photovoltaic effect which describes the production of a voltage (also called an electric current) when exposed to light.
Little did Becquerel know where this would lead.
1860: The world’s first solar-powered engine
Inspired by his compatriot’s previous discovery of the Photovoltaic effect, mathematician (also French), Augustin Mouchot began toying with the idea of solar-powered steam engines.
The engines created by Mouchot and his assistant, Abel Pifre, ended up inspiring modern-day parabolic dish collectors.
A Key discovery in the timeline of renewable energy was that of Willoughby Smith who found that Selenium, a nonmetal chemical element, is photoconductive.
This meant that the element showed potential for generating energy from light. Photoconductivity describes the phenomenon of a material absorbing electromagnetic radiation (or in other words, light from the sun) and in turn, becoming electrically conductive.
1876: Discovery that solar cells can generate energy
After Smith’s discovery, it was William Grylls Adams and Richard Evan Day who began testing the use potential of Selenium in machines.
After ample testing, they concluded that Selenium solar cells would not power electrical equipment as the energy conversion was not strong enough.
This finding of Selenium’s photoconductivity is still monumental in the timeline of renewable energy, however, as it was the first indication that a solid material had the potential to convert light into electricity (without heat or movement).
Now we touch on hydropower which is another form of renewable energy which developed from its ancient ancestor previously discussed, the Waterwheel.
In 1882, Appleton, Wisconsin begins operations on the world’s first hydropower plant. The plant harnesses energy from the rushing waters of the Fox River.
1883: The first Selenium photovoltaic (PV) cell
Charles Fritts, an American inventor, continued on with the potentiality of Selenium’s photoconductivity. Eventually, Fritts produced the inaugural solar cell which is now referred to as a photovoltaic (PV) cell. Fritts’ PV cells used Selenium which was less than one percent efficient and therefore, contributed to further research and developments in solar energy but were never brought into the mainstream energy market.
1887: Windmills (Prototype 2)
Now, we jump to Scotland where Professor James Blyth builds the first electricity-producing wind turbine out of Anderson’s College in Glasgow.
The turbine was 10 meters tall, had cloth sails, and was installed just near his second home in Kincardineshire.
The power generated from the turbine lit the nearby cottage. This was the first instance of a wind-powered home.
1905: The Photoelectric effect
In 1905, Albert Einstein produced four seminal papers on various scientific discoveries and theories.
The first of these papers focused on something he termed the “Photoelectric effect” which describes the release of electrons when light hits a material.
This broke barriers as Einstein wrote of light in the form of discrete packets as opposed to the waves that were thought of before this finding. Einstein’s theory eventually developed into the Theory of wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics.
1918: The first single-crystal silicon
Fast forward, roughly a decade later, we come to the Czochralski Method (also referred to as the Czochralski technique as well as the Czochralski process). This describes a particular method of crystal growth whereby single crystals of semiconductors (such as metals and salts) are obtained.
Fun fact: Polish scientist, Jan Czochralski (the namesake of the method) came across this process by accident. Rather than dipping his pen into an inkwell, he put it into a molten tin drawing a tin filament which was later discovered to be a single crystal.
1920: The first vertical-axis wind turbine
French scientist, Georges Darrieus created the first lift-based vertical axis wind turbine is the 1920s and patented it in 1925 (in France) and subsequently in 1931 (in the United States).
Often shortened to a VAWT or simply, the Darrieus turbine, this mechanism rotates due to the force of the wind on its blades.
The design was well received for its easier construction and maintenance.
1920: Hydropower usage grows
In 1920, roughly 25 percent of American electricity generation is sourced from Hydropower marking a significant transition in the country’s energy industry.
1927: The Commercialization of Wind Turbines
1927 marks a distinct moment in the history of wind as a renewable energy source as it was the beginning of its widespread success.
The Jacobs brothers (Joe and Marcellus) are largely responsible for the commercialization of the wind turbine in that they opened their Jacobs Wind factory which began the production of wind turbines for the agricultural industry.
Many farms, due to the nature of farmland being spread out and sprawling, were not connected to a grid at the time. As such, wind turbines allowed farmers access to power that was otherwise more challenging and expensive.
The Jacobs capitalized on this demand and the use of wind turbines began proliferating.
1931: Hoover Dam
Perhaps you recognize the name and for a good reason. Hoover Dam was a solution to unemployment brought about by the Great Depression of 1929. The Dam’s construction which began in 1931 employed approximately 20,000 people who would have otherwise been subjected to poverty.
Hoover Dam took five years to construct and is located in the Black Canyon along the Colorado River which runs between Nevada and Arizona. It cost $49 million to build (at the time).
1936: Hoover Dam begins generating power
Construction of the arch-gravity dam is completed in 1936 and begins generating power that same year.
The Dam generates electricity for people across Nevada, Arizona, and California.
1941: World’s first-megawatt wind turbine
The Smith-Putnam wind turbine comes about in 1941. This is the first wind turbine able to produce over 1 MW of electricity.
The turbine was built in Vermont and connected to the region’s power grid on October 19th, 1941 thus contributing to power generation for the people of this region.
1954: The first PV cell is created
Many seminal findings came out of Bell Laboratories over its time. In the April of 1954, the scientists at Bell Labs presented the initial silicon solar cell which could be used practically.
To demonstrate the practicality of the solar cells, the scientists used them to power a toy Ferris wheel as well as a radio transmitter.
These first iterations were roughly 6 percent efficient and The New York Times published its belief that they marked the beginning of a new era in which energy could be harnessed from a virtually endless source.
1956: Solar cells are commercialized
In the year of 1956, the first solar cell comes to market to be sold commercially for about $300 for 1 watt.
The cost meant that solar cells didn’t make economic sense quite yet. It was determined that the operations of solar cells would need to be heavily scaled in order to bring down the costs and resultingly, commercialize the cell at a practical rate.
However, these first few solar cells were often used to power toys and radios.
1956: The Gedser wind turbine is built
Johannes Juul was the brains behind this important wind turbine design entitled the Gedser turbine (named after the location in which it was erected).
It was a key point in the timeline of wind energy because of its ability to produce 200kW of electrical current and as it was directly connected to the electrical grid.
Fun fact: the Gedser wind turbine still stands today just outside of the town of Gedser on the Danish Island of Falster. Thus, you can visit the place where history was made through this tremendous invention.
1958: Solar-powered satellites
In 1958, solar went to space. The Vanguard 1 was the first solar-powered satellite. It was sent to space on March 17th, 1958 by the U.S. and represented cutting-edge technology as solar was just coming into the mainstream.
The satellite sits at 6.4 inches in diameter and is roughly 3.5 pounds. The satellite is still floating in space to this day and will be there well into 2100 unless it is removed by humans.
1977: The solar energy research institute comes about
The year 1977 proved that solar was going mainstream.
The Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) was formed, representing the first federal facility solely dedicated to solar power development and study.
SERI was established in Golden, Colorado, and brought scientists from all over the country and world to contribute to the growing research interest in solar power.
1978: It takes a village: an entire Arizona village goes solar
On December 16th, 1978, the NASA Lewis Research Center used a state-of-the-art Photovoltaic system to power an entire village. This village was called Schuchuli located in Arizona on the remote lands of the Papago Indian Reservation.
Located roughly 17 miles from any power lines, the people of this region were subjected to using kerosene lamps and diesel-powered wells, both inefficient and hazardous to human health.
The project was deemed successful bring power to the town 89% of the time.
1978: The first feed-in-tariff is implemented in the US
Now for a political milestone. Energy is a deeply political issue as it is often state-run. Thus, America’s first feed-in-tariff (FIT) to promote renewable energy usage is a key point in the timeline of renewable energy.
This FIT, in particular, was implemented by the Carter administration following the 1970s energy crises. FITs are designed to promote investment in Renewable energy. As such, many have followed all around the world and within the US since this one.
1980: The world’s first wind farm is built
In 1980, on the shoulder of Crotched Mountain in Southern New Hampshire, the world’s first wind farm was established.
A wind farm is a conglomeration of wind turbines in a highly efficient area which thereby produces a significant amount of energy.
In the case of this wind farm, 20 turbines were erected, each with a 30 kW capacity.
1981: The first solar-powered airplane successfully complete a flight
In 1981, the appropriately named - considering that it challenged all odds - MacCready Solar Challenger flew successfully from France to England completing a 163-mile flight path.
1982: The first solar-powered cars are built
The next year, the first solar-powered car was built and completed a journey from Perth, Australia to Sydney, Australia.
Since then, many solar cars have been built primarily for the purpose of solar car racing rather than mainstream vehicle purposes.
1991: The first offshore wind farm is created
In Vindeby, Denmark in 1991, the first offshore wind farm was established. The leading renewable energy company, Ørsted commissioned the installation of 11 turbines in the sea just off Vindeby thereby creating the first offshore wind farm.
The wind farm totaled 5MW and therefore provided electricity to 2,200 Danish households annually.
1993: The first grid-supported solar system is completed
In 1993, the Pacific Gas and Electric institution installed a 500-kW solar photovoltaic (PV) system in Kerman, California.
This marks the first grid-supported PV system ever thereby additionally making it the first ever “distributed power” project.
1994: The inception of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
In 1994, The Solar Energy Research Institute (now called The National Renewable Energy Laboratory) was established.
The lab walked the talk by being the most energy-efficient U.S. governmental building in the world. The research facility combined its solar electric system with a passive solar design making it a cutting-edge building that would go on to inspire many other architects.
1994: The most efficient solar cell to date is created
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory created history in 1994 with its invention of the most efficient solar cell to date at a rate of 30% conversion efficiency.
The cell was made from gallium indium phosphide and gallium arsenide and would contribute to further efficiency developments moving forward.
1996: Solar energy storage
The U.S. Department of Energy and an industry consortium start working on Solar Two which was the follow-up to the Solar One solar power tower project which sought to demonstrate solar energy storage.
A significant issue with many renewable energy sources is that of storage. What happens when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine?
Solar Two dedicated resources to renewable energy storage research resulting in greater commercial interest in the energy types.
1998: Solar shingles
In 1998, renowned scientist, Subhendu Guha, invests flexible solar shingles which resemble the standard roofing material but indeed convert sunlight to electricity.
This design helped propel solar further into the mainstream.
1999: Worldwide PV reaches 1000MW
Just before the turn of the century, global installed Photovoltaic (PV) capacity hits the 1000 Megawatt mark indicating the start of an energy transition.
2001: Home Depot gets in the game
In 2001, Home Depot positions itself in the renewable energy market, selling residential solar power systems in some of its San Diego stores.
Due to its success in doing so, the company expands sales to 61 stores across the United States.
2006: Global wind power production exceeds 74GW
2006 was a markedly exciting year for wind globally. With installations in over 70 countries, growth in annual installed capacity of 32% across the world, and a new generating plant value of around $24 billion, 2006 demonstrated a significant shift towards wind in the global energy markets.
2012: Wind energy powers 15 million homes in the US
2012 was a very productive year for US wind power installation. Roughly 13,131 MW of electricity-generating capacity through wind was installed over the course of the year.
To put this into context, that means at peak output, about 3.5 million American homes could be powered by wind. This new capacity coupled with that already installed means wind could power approximately 15.2 million homes across the United States.
As of 2012, 45,100 wind turbines were installed across the country.
2014: Renewable energy attains grid parity in various countries in Europe
Grid parity describes the phenomenon of an alternative energy source generating power at the same cost (Levelized Cost of Electricity – LCEO) as that from the standard electricity grid.
Grid parity signals that a certain energy source (in this case, wind or solar) is a feasible energy source to be used widely and no longer requires government aid to proliferate.
In Germany, solar PV reached grid parity in 2011 making it the first country where this occurred. By 2014, grid parity for solar PV was achieved by over nineteen countries.
2015: Onwards and upwards for renewable energy
In 2016, U.S. renewable electricity grew to 18.3 percent of total installed capacity whilst reaching 15.6 percent of all electricity generated that same year.
Solar increased by 52.1 percent, wind power grew by 18.8 percent and hydropower saw a 6.7 percent growth.
2017: New Solar PV installed capacity reaches 74 GW globally making it the fastest-growing renewable energy
In 2017, Solar PV had a fantastic year. In the year leading up to 2017, new solar PV capacity around the world increased by 50% skyrocketing to greater than 74 GW.
Coming in 70 times higher than in 2006, solar led the way in the renewable energy industry in 2017
2020: Worldwide progress on the commercialization of solar PV slows due to COVID-19 supply chain issues
COVID interrupted supply chains for key materials in solar Photovoltaic (PV) machinery, therefore, slowing the progress of the widespread utilization of solar energy.
2020: Global projections for wind installed capacity decline from pre-COVID estimates
COVID interrupted many key supply chains for renewable energy generation. Primarily as many renewable energy sources require certain materials sourced from all around the world to convert that energy into electricity and therefore, rely on efficient supply chains.
Thus, the impressive growth trajectory for both wind and solar as well as other renewable energies declined over this period.
2021: Most recent data on renewable energy consumption
As of 2021, Our World in Data reports that 28% of per capita electricity comes from renewable energy sources such as Wind, Solar, and Hydropower.
In the US, this figure is closer to 20% while in Sweden, this figure hits the 67% mark.
Beyond: The future of renewable energy
Projections for renewable energy are promising. With significantly lower costs as well as a global transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources, renewable energy is expanding at a rapid pace.
According to the International Energy Agency, renewables are set to make up about 95% of the increase in global energy capacity through 2026.
As the science behind energy storage improves, we are set for a more sustainable future.
As you can see, renewable energy has come a long way. The development of renewables is largely due to a combination of scientific discovery in its earliest stages and market demand for clean energy more recently as we face the climate emergency and seek to decarbonize.