Humans have relied on energy for as long as we’ve been around. Like anything else in history, the type of energy we use comes from trends and development, although there are four renewable energy sources that have survived the test of time.
Biomass is the oldest form of renewable energy that humans have used, although wind, water, and solar power follow close behind. Humanity has harnessed and utilized these sources for the majority of history, shaping their potential into what we understand today.
While the history of renewable energy is not nearly as complex as our modern understanding, it’s often remarkable to reflect on what we were able to do. Keep reading as we explore the early utilization of these energy sources and the foundation they created.
Biomass: The Simplest and Oldest Renewable Energy Source
Biomass energy is simply energy that comes from organic materials (plants and animals). For as long as we look back in history, we see examples of biomass carrying civilizations.
This energy precedes our consumption of nonrenewable sources such as coal or oil. From humanity’s start, we’ve used organic material to make fires that provide warmth and cook our food. One of the most simplistic examples of this is burning wood for fire, but our use of animal and vegetable oils goes as far back as ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations.
In the 1800s, ethanol (derived from grains) boomed in popularity for cooking and lighting purposes. Other, more refined sources of biomass include turpentine, made from distilled pine sap and popular in the 18th century.
While bioenergy is still recognized today, it’s overshadowed by nonrenewable sources that are cheaper and more efficient to use.
Wind Energy: a Close Second
Some are hesitant to qualify biomass as a renewable energy source, especially with the booming population in modern history. If it were disqualified in this assessment, our use of wind energy would bump up into first place.
If we look back over 7000 years, we see humans harness wind power in the sails of their ships. This simple technology is what allowed us to send boats down the Nile river and sail across oceans to transport goods, humans, and ideas.
The first use of windmills is largely disputed, but we know they’ve been around since the 10th century at the latest). At this time, windmills in eastern Persia used horizontal blades to raise water or grind grain.
The windmills in Europe are likely derived from this concept (although some argue Europe simply designed its own technology), but the European windmills sat vertical instead. The earliest verifiable source of this exists in a 12th century manuscript, outlining these tools that could:
- Raise water
- Saw wood
- Grind grain
The use of wind energy in the middle ages had a large impact on the class divide. While watermills did the same things, they were monopolized by the lords in power. Peasants could instead harness wind energy to decrease their workload and rely less on others for food.
How Water Energy Shaped Modern Civilization
Hydraulic power really took hold around the same time we learned to truly harness the wind. From 350 BCE to 500 CE, we learned to use hydro power to run through our more simple but labor-intensive tasks.
While there’s no clear answer to where and when we first used hydraulic technology, at least the first century BCE in Rome and the Eastern Mediterranean seems like a good place to start.
Waterwheels in these areas harnessed the energy of moving water to turn a millstone that ground grain into flour. As long as you had access to a waterway, this was an inexpensive and easy to operate way of processing grain.
Europe adapted these designs between 500 and 1500 CE to suit its local needs. These waterwheels stood vertically and were used to not only process grains but to:
- Saw wood
- Forge metal
- Manufacture textiles
- Help manage the flow of water (i.e. prevent flooding)
We never really grew out of this reliance, and hydropower is the world’s most utilized renewable energy source today.
The Ancient Influences of Solar Energy
We’ve always benefited from solar energy indirectly, and the sun is to thank for creating the foundation for modern civilization. We’ve never been free of the daily cycle, and the sun is a contributing factor in Earth's ability to support human life.
Our early uses of solar energy relate to our realization of its passive effects. One of the first comments regarding passive solar power comes from the Greek philosopher Socrates in the 4th century BCE.
At this time, he noted that building houses with south-facing windows and overhangs allowed heat to enter when the sun sat low during winter. This also reflected heat from the sun when it was at its worst in the summer.
This simple observation allowed Greek and Roman civilizations to actively regulate temperature in their dwellings. They also allowed “sun rights” that prohibited neighbors from blocking others from accessing the sun.
Burning glasses allowed users to concentrate the sun’s rays, and they were powerful enough to start fires. In the 17th and 18th centuries, we refined our use of lenses and mirrors to better focus sunlight and harness the subsequent heat.
Unfortunately, modern attempts to harness energy from the sun are only getting started (especially when compared to other sources of energy). While we still see the merit in the inexhaustible solar source, advancements are limited by size, expense, and inefficiency.
When trying to figure out which renewable energy is the oldest, it becomes clear that humanity has made use of everything around us for as long as possible. Our records do not go back far enough for a clear answer.
Humans have used biomass energy, wind energy, hydropower, and solar energy for as long as we’ve realized we could do something with it, and we would not be where we were today without these realizations.
Renewable energy has a history that is as long as we record, and it will continue to hold space in our history books moving forward.