Unit 1: Exploring Renewable Energy

Section C: Renewable Energy Timeline

Renewable Energy has been used throughout the world throughout time because of its convenience and availability. This timeline shows events and product discoveries relating to renewable energy. An activity follows that you are able to do with your students called Over the Years. (B.C.E.=Before Current Era)

Go to the Department of Energy Renewable Energy Timelines which include separate timelines for biomass, ethanol, geothermal, solar, photovoltaics, solar thermal, solar water heating, and wind.

400 B.C.E.: Socrates promotes passive solar design for comfortable living. Ancient Greeks use the sun's position in the sky to heat their homes in winter and keep them cool in summer. The open front of a Greek house faces south. Winter sunshine fills the house and warms the air inside the earth floor and thick walls. At night, the warm floor and walls continue to radiate heat and keep the temperature comfortable. The Greeks build porticos, or covered porches, over the front of their houses. The roof of the portico blocks the rays of the summer sun. The house stays cool inside.

200-300 B.C.E: A Greek mathematician shows that a reflective surface shaped like a parabola can concentrate sunlight to a point. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese use these early solar concentrators to light fires, especially in relationship to lighting spiritual fires.

700s: In Sri Lanka, the wind was used to smelt metal from rock ore.

950s: In Persia, windmills ground corn into corn meal. These were vertical axis wind machines that had shelters built around the blades to force wind in.

1200: In Europe, the horizontal axis postmill was built and used.

1200s: The armies of Genghis Khan brought Persians to China to build windmills for irrigation.

1300: In Europe, the mock mill was built where only the top part of the building has to be moved to change direction of machine.

1500: In Spain, tower windmills with triangle shaped cloth sails were used.

1500s: Leonardo da Vinci proposes the first industrial applications of solar concentrators.

1600: In the Netherlands, drainage windmills move water out of lowlands into dike systems.

1600: Drainage windmills turn fens (wetlands) into farmland.

1600s: The Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands used windmill blade positions to indicate a safe place for Catholics.

1626: The Dutch purchase New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island) and bring their windmills to America.

1693: Under new Dutch law, each windmill must have a name.

1700: The Netherlands and England each had approximately 10,000 windmills.

1745: Fantail was invented in England where blades move into the wind.

1759: In England, blades were turned 20 degrees to get more power from the wind.

1767: Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure invents the world's first solar collector, or "solar hot box."

1784: An official city seal was designed for New York City, NY which featured windmill blades.

1805: Sir Francis Beaufort created a wind speed chart (41.22 KB) based on observations in England.

1806: The French Army invaded the Netherlands and saw hundreds of mills along the Zaan River.

1839: French scientist Edmund Becquerel first observes the photovoltaic effect. Becquerel experimented with two identical electrodes in a conducting solution, converting light directly into electrical current.

1850s: An inventor named Daniel Halladay of Connecticut worked with John Burnham to build and sell the Halladay Windmill which was designed for the American West with an open tower design and thin wooden blades.  They also started the U.S. Wind Engine Company.

1861: French Scientist Augustin Mouchot patents a solar engine.

1865: At the end of the Civil War, everyone moved west. Railroads purchased the two newly designed windmills to pump water for the steam engines.

1867: Leonard Wheeler of Beloit, WI created the Eclipse windmill, also for the American West, and started the Eclipse Wind Engine Company.

1880s: American engineer John Ericsson launches the solar energy industry in the U.S. Ericsson develops several solar-driven engines to power steam generators for ships.

1880s: Western homesteaders purchase windmills from catalogs, traveling salesman or they build their own. Mills were used to pump water, shell corn, saw wood, and mill grain.

1880s: Thomas O. Perry conducted over 5,000 wind experiments trying to build a better windmill. He invented the mathematical windmill and starts the Aermotor company with LaVerne Noyes.

1882: The world's first hydroelectric power station (Vulcan Street Power Plant) was built in Appleton, Wisconsin.

1889: 77 windmill companies are in existence in the United States.

1891: Father of solar energy in the U.S., Clarence Kemp, patents first solar water heater.

1890s: First commercially available (roof mounted) solar water heaters are produced in southern California.

1892: Poul LaCour used a windmill to generate electricity in Denmark.

1893: In Chicago, IL, the World's Columbian Exposition (a huge technology expo), highlight 15 windmill companies who showcase their goods along with steam engines and Thomas Edison's talking films.

1894: Explorer Fridtjof Nansen used windmill powered lights in his ship's cabin while searching for the North Pole.

Early 1900s: Wind mills pump saltwater to evaporate ponds to provide California gold miners with salt.

1908: 72 windmills provide electricity to a village in Denmark.

1908: William J. Bailey of the Carnegie Steel Company invents solar collectors that became predecessors of today's solar collectors.

1920-50s: South Florida develops as a significant market for solar water heaters (thermosiphon design). Several companies service a market of about 50,000 homes. The industry virtually expires in 1950s, unable to compete against cheap and readily available natural gas and electric service.

1930s: Rear Admiral Richard Byrd brought a Jacobs wind generator to the Antarctic where it ran for 22 years without repairs.

1937: Jacobs Wind Electric Company opened and began selling windmills and generators (Marcellus Jacobs).

1939: The Dutch communicate with Germans via windmill blade position.

1940s: 'Solar Homes' become popular. More builders consider active and passive solar housing design.

1940s: During World War II, the Dutch found and rescued American pilots due to wind mill blade position.

1941: The biggest windmill ever installed is erected in Vermont with 53 meter blades. This wind turbine was the Smith-Putnam wind turbine.

1941: Over 60,000 solar water heaters in place in America.

1943: A part of the Smith-Putnam wind turbine breaks and the machine is shut down.

1945: The Smith-Putnam machine is restarted but due to small cracks in the blade, one blade broke and the turbine was shut down forever.

1950s: Most windmill companies were out of business in the United States.

1950s: Photovoltaic cells are used to power U.S. space satellites.

1954: Bell Telephone researches the sensitivity of a properly prepared silicon wafer to sunlight. The 'solar cell' is developed.

1960: First solar powered, 2-way radio, coast-to-coast conversation takes place between the U.S. Army Signal Corps in New Jersey and California.

1970s: There is again interest in wind power in the United States and Europe due to the oil embargo.

1973: Spurred by the first oil embargo, interest in terrestrial applications of photovoltaics blossoms.

1974: More than 20 companies start production of flat plate solar collectors in the U.S.

1979: Second oil embargo strengthens solar industry.

1980s: Wind farms are developed for large scale production in the United States and Europe.

1980: First solar cell power plant dedicated at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

1980: Carlisle residence, featuring the first building-integrated photovoltaic system, passive solar heating and cooling, superinsulation, internal thermal mass, earth sheltering, daylighting, a roof-integrated solar thermal system, and a 7.5-peak-watt photovoltaic array of polycrystalline modules is completed.

1986: Chernobyl nuclear accident in former Soviet Union.

1989: Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska

1990: Congress passes act to stimulate development of hydrogen power.

1990s: Minnesota led the nation in new wind power capacity installed throughout the 1990's.

1996: Solar Two Plant demonstrated low-cost method of storing solar energy.

1996: Hydrogen Future Act of 1996 passed to further expand hydrogen power development.

1997: EV1 Electric Car is made available to public for lease, later dismantled by GM

2003: President Bush unveils Hydrogen Fuel Initiative to promote Hydrogen fuel cell development.

2007: IPCC report concludes climate change is happening and is mostly human caused.

2008: First commercial cellulosic ethanol plant goes into production in Wyoming.

2008: Worst coal ash spill in US history in Tennessee.

2009: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocates billions of dollars for renewable energy and energy efficiency developments.

2010: Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and massive oil spill off coast of Louisiana in Gulf of Mexico.

2011: Earthquake off coast of Japan damages six powerplants at Fukushima Dai-ichi; highest level nuclear crisis reached.

2012: 3-D PV cell released with 30% higher efficiency, leads to the decrease in cost for solar electricity (PV).

2013: President Obama releases climate action plan including increased use of renewable energy and carbon pollution restrictions for power plants.

2013: EPA issues new proposed rule to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

2014: Ivanpah, world's largest concentrated solar power (CSP) generation plant, goes online in the Mojave Desert in California.

Today: Photovoltaic cells continue to be the major power source for U.S. space projects.

For more information, explore the Environmental History Timeline from Radford University.


Go back to Section B: Off-grid and Grid-intertied Systems


Continue on to Section D: Activity - Over the Years