With increasing spending and media interest, the Green agenda is one of the hot button topics of the early twenty-first century. Along with a growing support for ecological activism in the political spheres across the world, there is also a growing understanding amongst the voting population that a stable environment is humanity’s greatest natural asset. From concepts of macro and micromanagement of ecosystems, to the non-intrusive approach of the permaculture movement, we are finding new ways as a civilisation to interact with out habitats without causing widespread damage and pollution.
With much of the literature on Green politics finding its origins in the middle part of the twentieth century, it would be understandable to believe that such approaches to energy capture were a relatively recent phenomenon. But this is not the case at all: the history of renewable energy is as old as human history itself.
The story of renewable fuels begins almost 800,000 years ago, with modern archaeological studies providing us with evidence of our ancient ancestors using of biomass fuels as source energy for fires. And of course, the use of wind power in ocean-going boats and vessels, and water-driven mills have been employed by various cultures going back thousands of years.
Humankind relied on renewable sources of energy throughout prehistory up until the late medieval period: both wind and water power being harnessed by the multi-purpose grinding and saw mills that were found across Europe. But developments in coal (specifically, the discovery of the intense heat-burning coke) reshaped our relationship with the environment over the course of several centuries.
The industrial age of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was driven by a rush to fossil fuels, with Western nations competing for control of a finite stock of non-renewable energy sources. The move, first to coal power and latterly to oil, was one of the underlying causes of the First World War and, many political commentators would suggest, every major conflict since.
But where does that leave us? We inhabit a world of post-industrial economies and a growing demands being placed on diminishing resources. If we can characterise the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a competition between nations for fuel, then we can characterise our current political climate as one of re-evaluation and co-operation towards a sustainable future.
Many of the greatest post-industrial innovations in renewable energy have come from the United States, a surprising fact for some who consider the world’s highest consumers of oil to be opposed to the rise of Green politics. But every field of renewable energy, from solar to geothermal, has been adopted and advanced over the course of the twentieth century, by American entrepreneurs.
Geothermal energy, which harnesses the power of the intense heat below the surface of the earth was initially shown to work as far back as 1921, when the world’s first geothermal power station was opened in California. Today, geothermal energy is seen as a very efficient method of heating in certain locations. In volcanic Iceland, for example, ninety per cent of all heating and water is geothermal-powered.
Similarly, by the middle part of the twentieth century, the Hoover dam had been constructed, the first commercial wind turbines manufactured, and silicon photovoltaic solar panel were being perfected to increase the efficiency rates of energy capture from the sun. Today, each of these renewable forms of energy capture is playing an increasingly significant role in energy management.
Historically, the motivation has been the same as it is today: to provide efficient, sustainable, and cheap energy resources for the population. The catalyst for this movement came in 1956, when the concept of “peak oil” was first noticed: the point at which extraction of fossil fuel became energy-neutral. That is to say, that it would take a barrel of oil to power the effort required to extract a barrel of oil. This is perceived as the new global challenge facing governments in the twenty first century. How we cope with an increasing demand as we pass peak oil is a question that faces us all.