Renewable opportunities missed
I’ve always been fascinated by history. It was one of my favourite subjects at school. I enjoyed nothing more than learning how the world had evolved over the years; particularly the way in which culture, society, science and technology were the key driving forces of these changes.
Despite this, whilst working within the energy industry over the last 13 years, I haven’t spent much time researching the history of energy. My assumption had been that having solely used ‘dirty’ fuels over the last 100 years or so, it had suddenly dawned on us all that these fuels were actually bad for the environment – and we should do something about it. So over the last 20 years or so, we ploughed R&D money into clever inventions such as wind turbines and solar panels in an effort to create a world where clean renewable energy could one day be the norm.
But having completed a bit of research on this, my assumptions proved to be very wrong. The opportunity for the generation of renewable energy has been around for over a century – we as a society have just chosen not to embrace it. Let’s take solar technology as an example. The sun delivers enough energy to Earth in an hour to supply our entire global power demand for a year. A pretty striking statement.
Frank Shuman, an American inventor, saw the opportunity for renewable generation back in 1913 and built a solar generating plant in Egypt. This was one of a number of solar plants Shuman intended to build to provide the world for a renewable, viable alternative to coal. But the world turned away from his innovation and decided that crude oil was a good, cheap and transportable power source. During this period, oil became the flavour of choice with exploration efforts resulting in large deposits being discovered across the world. How could Shuman and other innovators of his time push renewable technologies when large and growing corporates were becoming wealthy from oil? That would have made these businesses very unhappy and we couldn’t have that!
Just over a century later and we increase efforts to move again towards solar power generation. It looks unlikely that we will encounter barriers in our quest for a cleaner energy world caused by a new new dirty fuel; the fossil fuel revolution is complete.
Whilst it’s exciting to think of a carbon neutral world (and it’s certainly achievable) we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this could have been the norm if greed hadn’t got in the way of things a century ago and Shuman had his day. We knew back then that oil and coal were finite natural resources and we’ve known about the impact of global warming for a long time now. It’s taken too long, but I suppose the old saying of “better late than never” holds true.