The History of Alternative Energy: The Big Picture

The History of Alternative Energy: The Big Picture

By
Grace Smoot

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Alternative energy sources have very low carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and a very low impact on the environment, meaning they could play a vital role in combating climate change. So, we had to ask: What is the history of alternative energy?

Alternative energy began thousands of years ago via harnessing energy from the sun, the earth’s heat, waves, and radioactivity. Theoretical and experimental validation of alternative energy mechanisms, followed by the invention of alternative energy technologies, have shaped the modern market.

Keep reading to learn how alternative energy came to be, who and what pioneered its development, how effective it has been thus far, and what the future of alternative energy could entail. 

Here’s the History of Alternative Energy in a Nutshell

Alternative energy is an energy substitute for fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) that can reduce the effects of global warming. It produces minimal greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and has a minimal negative impact on the environment, making it both sustainable and environmentally friendly. 

Alternative Energy: electricity or power that is produced from the sun, wind, water, etc. in ways that do not use up the earth’s natural resources or harm the environment”

Oxford Dictionary

The 4 types of alternative energy are solar, geothermal, wave, and nuclear energy. 

Alternative energy has gone through three distinct development phases in its development:

  • Early market formation and innovation: The early history of alternative energy dates back thousands of years with primitive methods of harnessing the sun, heat from the earth’s core, waves, and radioactivity. Scientific advances in the 1800-1900s paved the way for the development of modern alternative energy technologies.
  • Consolidation and strengthening: Theoretical and experimental validation of alternative energy mechanisms, followed by the invention of solar panels, geothermal plants, wave converters, and nuclear reactors, helped to shape the alternative energy market.
Alternative Energy MilestonesHistorical Event
Initial startThe early history of alternative energy dates back thousands of years with primitive methods of harnessing the sun, heat from the earth’s core, waves, and radioactivity. Scientific advances in the 1800-1900s paved the way for the development of modern alternative energy technologies.
Milestones in alternative energy development1883: The first photoelectric (solar) cell was invented. 
1904: Piero Ginori Conti became the first to use geothermal energy to power a small generator.
1910: Busso Belasek developed the first artificial wave machine.
1910: Bochaux Praceique developed the first oscillating water column for wave energy, which is a design still used today. 
1913: The world’s first commercial, dry steam geothermal power plant was constructed in Italy. 
1934: Enrico Fermi unknowingly directed the first controlled chain reaction involving nuclear fission. Mark Oliphant demonstrated nuclear fusion in a laboratory setting and discovered helium-3 and tritium.
1948: The world’s first commercial geothermal heat pump became operational. This pioneered the large-scale commercial application of heat pumps. 
1950s: Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm conceptualized the tokamak, which would become the preferred nuclear fusion reactor today.
1951: Lyman Spitzer invented the stellarator, a type of fusion reactor.
1954: The first silicon solar cell was invented.
1956: Calder Hall, the world’s first commercial nuclear fission power station, became operational.
1958: The world’s first tokamak fusion reactor, the T-1, was constructed in Russia.
1967: The world’s first geothermal, binary cycle power plant became operational in Russia.
1983: The Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak was constructed, the largest operational nuclear fusion reactor to achieve nuclear fusion at the time.
2003: The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) was established as the world’s first commercial, open-sea testing facility for wave energy technologies.
2008: The world’s first operational wave power system, the Aguçadora wave farm, was opened in Portugal.
2022: The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (US) demonstrated the viability of nuclear fusion energy for the first time. 
2023: CorPower Ocean installed CorPower C4, the first commercial-scale wave energy converter.
Current statusCurrently, we generate roughly 13% of energy from alternative energy. Including 1,290 terawatt-hours (TWh) from solar, 95 TWh from geothermal, 0.97 TWh from wave (and tidal), and 2,500 TWh from nuclear energy. 
Future outlookThe future of alternative energy will be heavily influenced by ambitious government targets, policy support, increasing competitiveness of alternative energy technologies, and incentives to use less fossil fuels.
Key policy developments1957 – International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
1974 – The International Energy Agency (IEA)
1988 – The International Geothermal Association (IGA)
2001 – World Nuclear Association (WNA)
2009 – The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)
2013 – Ocean Energy Europe (OEE)
2015 – International Solar Alliance (ISA)
2015 – The Global Geothermal Alliance (GGA)
2015 – The Paris Agreement 
2018 – The Fusion Industry Association (FIA)

Understanding alternative energy’s history can provide insight into how it has evolved into the energy source it is today.

When and How Did Alternative Energy Get Started

In general, we have been using alternative energy for centuries. But each type of alternative energy got its start differently.

  • Solar: Humans have been using the sun as energy since the 7th century BC. Common ancient uses of the sun included actively reflecting the sun’s rays and passively allowing the sun to act as a source of heat. In 1839, French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, which would lead to the development of the photoelectric (PV solar) cell, the basis of modern solar energy. 
  • Geothermal: Humans have been using geothermal energy, in the form of natural pools and hot springs, for centuries. The Greeks and the Romans used baths heated by hot springs, and instances of geothermal space heating in the city of Pompeii have been documented as far back as the first century AD. Evidence was also discovered that Native Americans used geothermal energy in cooking applications as early as 10,000 years ago
  • Nuclear: The early history of nuclear power involved studies about the science of atomic radiation, the atomic model, and the fission and fusion processes. In 1934, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi unknowingly directed the first controlled chain reaction involving nuclear fission. And also in 1934, Australian physicist Mark Oliphant became the first to demonstrate nuclear fusion in a laboratory setting. 

How Has Alternative Energy Developed Over Time

Over the years, alternative energies have grown to make up an ever-growing amount of total energy consumption and play a vital role in combating climate change. As concern increases over the worsening climate crisis, attention shifts towards developing alternative energy.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the history of alternative energy? Check it out in these individual articles here: 

What Are Milestones in Alternative Energy Development 

The 1800s and 1900s saw rapid refinement and development of alternative energy technologies

1818: François Jacques de Larderel became the first to harness geothermal energy for industrial use by extracting boric acid from hot springs.

1883: The first photoelectric (solar) cell was invented. 

1904: Piero Ginori Conti became the first to use geothermal energy to power a small generator to illuminate several light bulbs. 

1907: The Hot Lake Hotel became one of the first buildings in the world to use geothermal energy as its primary heat source.

1910: Busso Belasek developed the first artificial wave machine.

1910: Bochaux Praceique developed the first oscillating water column for wave energy, which is a design still used today. 

1913: The world’s first commercial, dry steam power plant was constructed in Italy. 

1934: Enrico Fermi unknowingly directed the first controlled chain reaction involving nuclear fission. Mark Oliphant demonstrated nuclear fusion in a laboratory setting and discovered helium-3 and tritium.

1938: Otto Hahn and Fritz Straßmann experimentally proved the process of nuclear fission. 

1939: Otto Frisch and William Arnold coined the term “fission”. Hans Bethe and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar figured out the precise subatomic process of fusion.

1940: Yoshio Masuda developed a navigation buoy powered by wave energy. He is often regarded as the father of modern wave energy technology.

1948: The world’s first commercial geothermal heat pump became operational. This pioneered the large-scale commercial application of heat pumps. 

1950s: Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm conceptualized the tokamak, which would become the preferred nuclear fusion reactor today.

1951: Lyman Spitzer invented the stellarator, a type of fusion reactor.

1954: The first silicon solar cell was invented.

1956: Calder Hall, the world’s first commercial nuclear fission power station, became operational.

1958: The world’s first tokamak fusion reactor, the T-1, was constructed in Russia.

1960: The Geysers Geothermal Complex, the world’s largest geothermal power plant, was constructed North of San Francisco, California (US).

1963: The Wairākei Power Station was opened in New Zealand. It was the first flash steam-powered plant and the second overall geothermal power plant in the world.

1963: Sharp Corporation became the first mass-producer of silicon solar panels.

1967: The world’s first geothermal, binary cycle power plant became operational in Russia. This binary cycle design uses lower-temperature geothermal resources, meaning it is more efficient and can be deployed at more locations worldwide.

1983: The Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak was constructed, the largest operational nuclear fusion reactor to achieve nuclear fusion at the time.

1991: JET achieved the world’s first controlled release of fusion power.

2003: The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) was established as the world’s first commercial, open-sea testing facility for wave and tidal energy technologies.

2006: The Chena Hot Springs Resort installed the world’s first plant to produce geothermal energy at temperatures below the boiling point of water. This expanded the geographic area where geothermal energy can be extracted.

2006: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) agreement was signed.

2007: Solar energy became the leading renewable energy technology. 

2008: The world’s first operational wave power system, the Aguçadora wave farm, was opened in Portugal.

2018: France opened Europe’s first solar panel recycling plant.

2022: The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (US) demonstrated the viability of nuclear fusion energy for the first time. 

2023: CorPower Ocean installed CorPower C4, the first commercial-scale wave energy converter.

How Has the Alternative Energy Market Developed Recently

Each alternative energy source has developed differently in recent years:

  • Solar: Starting in 2010, there was a push to increase solar energy capacity worldwide. Global installed solar capacity increased from 96 GW in 2012 to 1,180 GW in 2022
  • Geothermal: Since 2000, geothermal energy has seen steady increases in terms of electricity generation and installed capacity. Electricity generation has increased from 91,980 GWh to 95,251 GWh and installed capacity from 14,089 MW to 14,877 MW
  • Wave: Recent years have seen wave energy remain stagnant both in terms of installed capacity and investment. With very few countries currently generating or installing wave energy, the focus remains on refining the technology and increasing investments for future possible commercial energy generation. 
  • Nuclear: In recent years, nuclear fission has seen a relatively stable market, with installed capacity decreasing from 399 to 371 GW as old power plants are taken offline. Nuclear fusion currently does not supply energy to the power grid. Most recently, The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory demonstrated the viability of nuclear fusion energy for the first time ever in 2022.

What Is the Present Status of Alternative Energy

To have a look at the present status of alternative energy, we need to have a look at the status of each of these types of energies: solar, geothermal, wave, and nuclear energy.

Solar energy is currently the third-largest renewable electricity technology. PV solar accounted for 1,289 TWh of electricity generated, roughly 4.5% of total global electricity generation in 2022. China, the US, Japan, Germany, and India together account for nearly 800 gigawatts (GW), or two-thirds, of our global PV solar energy capacity.

Illustration from Our World in Data: Solar Power Generation, 2022
Our World in Data: Solar Power Generation, 2022

Global electricity generation from geothermal energy reached an all-time high of 95 TWh in 2021. However, geothermal still represents only 0.5% of the global renewable electricity market and even less of the global electricity market as of 2022. The US is the world leader in geothermal electricity generation, but Turkey and Kenya have seen exponential increases in installed geothermal capacity recently.

Illustration of Geothermal Electricity Generation from International Renewable Energy Agency
International Renewable Energy Agency: Geothermal Electricity Generation

Globally, we generated 0.97 TWh of electricity in 2022 from marine energy (tidal + wave energy). Europe remains at the forefront of wave energy technology. Most recently in 2023, CorPower Ocean installed its first commercial-scale wave energy converter, the CorPower C4 oscillating water column. 

Illlustration from The International Renewable Energy Agency: Electricity Generation Trends: Marine Energy
The International Renewable Energy Agency: Electricity Generation Trends – Marine Energy

Nuclear fission accounted for roughly 10% of global electricity generation in 2022, generating approximately 2,500 TWh of electricity from approximately 413 GW of installed capacity

Illustration from Our World in Data: Nuclear power generation
Our World in Data: Nuclear power generation

In terms of nuclear fusion, there are currently more than 10 stellarators and 50 tokamaks in operation worldwide, but there are currently no operating fusion reactors that provide energy to our power grid. The focus remains on refining the technology.

How Will the Future of Alternative Energy Look Like

In general, the future of alternative energy will be heavily influenced by ambitious government targets, policy support, increasing competitiveness of alternative energy technologies, and incentives to use less fossil fuels.

How Alternative Energy Will Likely Develop in the Future

More specifically, each type of alternative energy has a different future outlook:

  • Geothermal: One of the most prominent, emerging geothermal technologies is enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), also known as human-made geothermal energy. The future of geothermal energy also involves a switch from dry steam to binary cycle geothermal plants, which are more efficient.

What Policies Are Put in Place to Support Alternative Energy Usage

The most well-known piece of legally binding, international climate mitigation legislation is The Paris Agreement, the goal of which is to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (C), preferably to 1.5C, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The Paris Agreement specifically notes the transition away from fossil fuels and towards alternative energies as being a critical part of meeting these goals.

Check out the highlights of the 2015 COP21 directly from the UN Climate Change channel:

Two Weeks of COP 21 in 10 Minutes

In addition, The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario is one framework for the global energy sector to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and universal energy access by 2030.

There are many global and country-specific policies and organizations aimed at increasing alternative energy usage and meeting the 2050 net zero scenario, including: 

  • 1957 – International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): The IAEA was founded as fears about nuclear technology began to develop. It is an organization within the United Nations that seeks to promote the safe, secure, and peaceful use of nuclear technologies through international cooperation.
  • 1974 – The International Energy Agency (IEA): The IEA was founded in response to the major oil disruptions in 1974. It promotes international energy cooperation and is made up of 31 member countries. 
  • 1988 – The International Geothermal Association (IGA): The IGA is a leading, global organization that promotes geothermal energy as a vital part of the transition away from fossil fuels. Today, the IGA has over 5,000 members and 30 affiliate organizations.
  • 2001 – World Nuclear Association (WNA): The WNA was established as the leading international organization to represent the global nuclear industry. 
  • 2009 – The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA): IRENA was founded as a global intergovernmental agency focused on scaling renewable energy. It is comprised of 167 member countries as well as the European Union.
  • 2013 – Ocean Energy Europe (OEE): They are the largest global network of marine energy professionals, with over 120 member organizations. They aim to advance wave energy technologies. 
  • 2015 – International Solar Alliance (ISA): The ISA is a treaty-based organization established to create cooperation among solar energy-resource-rich countries and the rest of the world. There are currently 94 member countries.
  • 2015 – The Global Geothermal Alliance (GGA): The GGA was established by IRENA as a platform to enhance discussion, cooperation, and coordination between the geothermal industry, policymakers, and stakeholders. Today, the GGA has 52 member countries
  • 2018 – The Fusion Industry Association (FIA): The FIA was formed to be the voice of the private, nuclear fusion industry. They are a nonprofit organization comprised of private companies striving to make nuclear fusion commercially viable.

If you are interested in learning more about country-specific energy policies, you can visit the IEA’s policies database and filter by specific energy type.

What Are Currently the Different Types of Alternative Energy

The 4 types of alternative energy are solar, geothermal, wave, and nuclear energy. 

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the different types of alternative energy? Check it out in this article here: Alternative Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

What Are Currently the Different Types of Solar Energy

Solar energy is the conversion of sunlight into electrical energy.

Solar Energy: energy that uses the power of the sun to produce electricity”

Cambridge Dictionary

Harnessing the power of the sun falls into two main categories:

  1. Photovoltaic (PV) solar cells: photovoltaic cells in solar panels absorb energy from sunlight, creating an electrical charge. This charge moves in response to an internal electric field in the cell, causing electricity to flow. 
  1. Concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP): mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect and convert solar energy into heat. This is utilized in very large power plants.

Both systems take the energy from the sun and convert it to electricity, just by slightly different mechanisms.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about solar energy? Check it out in this article here: “Solar Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

What Are Currently the Different Types of Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is the conversion of heat inside of the earth into electric energy. It is created by the decay of radioactive materials in the rock and fluid of the earth’s core. 

Geothermal: involving or produced by the heat that is inside the earth” Cambridge Dictionary

The three main types of geothermal power plants are: 

  1. Dry Steam: Wells are drilled into underground reservoirs of steam. The steam is piped directly from the well to the power plant where it powers turbines and generators.
  1. Flash Steam: The most common type of geothermal power plant. Very hot (360 degrees Fahrenheit, 182 degrees Celsius) water flows up through wells towards the surface under its own pressure. As it reaches the surface, some of the water boils into steam. The steam is then separated from the water and is then used to power turbines and generators at the power plant.
  1. Binary Steam: Wells are drilled into underground reservoirs of hot water (225-360 degrees Fahrenheit, 107-182 degrees Celsius). The heat from the water is used to boil a working fluid, an organic compound with a low boiling point. This working fluid is vaporized into steam which is then used to power turbines and generators at the power plant. The water is then injected back into the ground where it is reheated and can be used again.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about geothermal energy? Check it out in this article here: “Geothermal Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

What Are Currently the Different Types of Wave Energy

Wave energy is the conversion of the up and down motion of waves into electrical energy. It is created when the wind blows over the surface of the water in oceans or lakes. 

Wave Power: electrical energy generated by harnessing the up-and-down motion of ocean waves”

Britannica

There are three types of wave energy technology:

  • Float or buoy: Anchored buoys use the rise and fall of waves to power hydraulic pumps. The “up” and “down” movement powers a generator to produce electricity, which is transported onshore via underwater power cables. 
  • Oscillating water column: The “in” and “out” motion of waves at the shore enter columns, forcing air to turn turbines. As the waves enter the column, the air is compressed and heated, creating energy. The energy is then transported onshore via underwater power cables. 
  • Tapered channel (tapchan): Shore-mounted structures channel and concentrate waves, pushing them into an elevated reservoir. The water is then released from the reservoir, flowing through penstocks and to turbines which power a generator to produce electricity. 
Related: Are you interested in learning more about wave energy? Check it out in this article here: “Wave Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

What Are Currently the Different Types of Nuclear Energy

In general, nuclear power is generated when neutrons either divide or fuse, which releases heat, produces steam, spins a turbine, and drives generators to produce electricity. 

The two ways we can generate nuclear power are via nuclear fission (when neutrons divide) or nuclear fusion (when neutrons fuse).

Nuclear fission is the generation of energy produced when splitting apart the nucleus of an atom. 

Nuclear fission: a nuclear reaction in which a heavy nucleus splits spontaneously or on impact with another particle, with the release of energy.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Nuclear fusion is the generation of energy produced when lighter atoms are combined or fused to create larger and heavier atoms.

Nuclear fusion: the process of joining two nuclei to produce energy.”

Cambridge Dictionary

All operating nuclear power plants today utilize the process of nuclear fission, whereas nuclear fusion is still very much in the research and development phase. 

Related: Are you interested in learning more about nuclear power? Check it out in this article here: “Nuclear Power Explained: All You Need to Know

Final Thoughts

The early history of alternative energy dates back thousands of years with primitive methods of harnessing the sun, heat from the earth’s core, waves, and radioactivity. Scientific advances in the 1800-1900s paved the way for the development of modern alternative energy technologies.

The establishment of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have helped to develop the alternative energy industry, which today makes up a substantial part of the renewable energy sector.

Alternative energy is poised to see continued growth in the future as we look to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels stated in the Paris Agreement. Ambitious government targets, policy support, increasing competitiveness of alternative energy companies, and decreasing costs will heavily influence the future of alternative energy.

Stay impactful,

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