The History of Solar Power
Modern solar power has a history longer than many would ever dream. It has been in development for over 140 years. Then, as now, inventors were concerned about the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Between 1860 and 1880, Auguste Mouchout worked on a solar powered engine. The engine worked by converting solar energy into steam power. Mouchout was motivated by Europe’s heavy use of coal, and his knowledge that the coal reserves would not last forever.
The French government subsidized Mouchout’s work, and he came up with a steam engine that could run a water pump. It was a half-horsepower engine. This invention was sent to Algeria to be used in a land with plenty of sunshine and a need for water. Algeria was also very dependent on coal.
At the same time, William Adams, and Englishman in India, saw Mouchout’s device as too difficult to be used for larger applications. He came up with another solution. He built a rack with many small mirrors around a stationary boiler. This allowed him to get 2.5 horsepower out of the engine.
From 1885 to 1889, Charles Tellier worked with solar power, inventing large solar collectors to be put on rooftops. His main objective was refrigeration, and his invention was put to work making ice. He also envisioned his devices being used to tame the African plains, making them more hospitable for farming and development.
In 1903, Aubrey Eneas was working on solar power. He built on Mouchout’s designs and made them larger and more practical. He sold one complete system for a little over $2,000 to a doctor in Arizona.
After only a few days, it was damaged in a windstorm and could not be used again. Another system was sold in Arizona for $2,500, but it did not make it through the first hailstorm.
At about the same time, Henry E. Willsie made two solar plants that could store energy up from the day to be used at night. His invention, made of flat plate collectors, also had a higher power rating, at 15 horsepower.
In 1906, Frank Shuman developed Willsie’s system further, finally ending up with an engine of 33 horsepower. When he moved the invention to a Cairo plant, it did even better, with an engine of 55 horsepower.
After that, the solar industry suffered a long silence. In 1954, advancement was made when researchers at Bell laboratories invented photovoltaic cells. Then, during the 1970’s, people again began to see the need for solar power as the prices at the gas pump went up.
By the mid-1980’s, the Luz Company had constructed several electric solar power plants. By 1991 the company was bankrupt, some say to lack of cooperation by the government. Now solar power systems are available to the general public for use on their homes and businesses.
Solar power started out well over a century ago as experiments in the hands of a few inventors. It has become a possibility for environmentally-friendly and cheap energy in the future. For many people with solar power systems of their own, that possibility has already been realized.