The History of Green Energy: The Big Picture

The History of Green Energy: The Big Picture

By
Grace Smoot

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Green energy is a subset of renewable energy that provides the highest environmental benefits in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and protecting our environment. It could play a substantial role in climate change mitigation. So we had to ask: What is the history of green energy?

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

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

Here’s the History of Green Energy in a Nutshell

Green energy sources are energy substitutes for fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is a more specific category of renewable energy that provides higher environmental benefits than renewables.

Green energy: energy that can be produced in a way that protects the natural environment, for example by using wind, water, or the sun”

Cambridge Dictionary

The 5 most common types of green energy are solar, wind, hydropower (micro/low), geothermal, and wave energy. 

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

  • Early market formation and innovation: The early history of green energy dates back thousands of years with primitive methods of harnessing the sun, wind, water, heat from the earth’s core, and waves. Scientific advances between 1800-1900 paved the way for the development of modern green energy technologies. 
  • Consolidation and strengthening: Theoretical and experimental validation of green energy mechanisms, followed by the invention of solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric facilities, geothermal plants, and wave converters helped to shape the green energy market.
Green Energy MilestonesHistorical Event
Initial startThe early history of green energy dates back thousands of years with primitive methods of harnessing the sun, wind, water, heat from the earth’s core, and waves. Scientific advances between 1800-1900 paved the way for the development of modern green energy technologies. 
Milestones in green energy development1771: Richard Arkwright invented the water frame, a water-powered machine to spur the Industrial Revolution.
1878: The world’s first hydroelectric project was established.
1882: The world’s first hydroelectric power plant was constructed.
1883: The first photoelectric (solar) cell was invented. 
1887: The first wind turbine for electricity generation was developed.
1895: The largest and first alternating current electricity-generating hydropower plant was constructed.
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. 
1920s: The first vertical axis wind turbine was developed.
1941: The first megawatt (MW) wind turbine was constructed and connected to the US power grid. 
1948: The world’s first commercial geothermal heat pump became operational. This pioneered the large-scale commercial application of heat pumps. 
1954: The first silicon solar cell was invented.
1967: The world’s first geothermal, binary cycle power plant became operational in Russia.
1980: The world’s first onshore wind farm was constructed in New Hampshire (US).
1991: The world’s first offshore wind farm, the Vindeby Wind Farm, was constructed in Denmark. 
2008: The world’s first operational wave power system, the Aguçadora wave farm, was opened in Portugal.
2023: CorPower Ocean installed CorPower C4, the first commercial-scale wave energy converter.
Current statusCurrently, more than 10% of our primary energy consumption (heating, transportation, and electricity) currently comes from green energy technologies. Hydropower accounts for the majority of green electricity generation at roughly 51%, followed by wind at 25% and solar at 15%.
Future outlookThe future of green energy will be heavily influenced by ambitious government targets, policy support, increasing competitiveness of green energy technologies, and incentives to use less fossil fuels.
Key policy developments1974 – The International Energy Agency (IEA)
1988 – The International Geothermal Association (IGA)
1995 – The International Hydropower Association (IHA)
2005 – Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC)
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 

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

When and How Did Green Energy Get Started

In general, we have been using green energy for centuries. But each type of green 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. 
  • Hydropower: Water was used to perform simple yet labor-intensive tasks long before it was used to produce electricity. The early history of hydropower energy dates back to 300 BC with the invention of the water wheel to grind grain.
  • 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

How Has Green Energy Developed Over Time

Over the years, green 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 green energy.

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

What Are Milestones in Green Energy Development 

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

1771: English textile manufacturer Richard Arkwright invented the water frame, a water-powered machine that spun cotton into yarn.

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

1878: The world’s first hydroelectric project was established in England.

1882: The world’s first hydroelectric power plant was constructed.

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

1887: The first wind turbine for electricity generation was developed.

1895: The largest and first alternating current electricity-generating hydropower plant was constructed.

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. 

1920s: The first vertical axis wind turbine was developed.

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

1941: The first megawatt (MW) wind turbine was constructed and connected to the US power grid. 

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

1954: The first silicon solar cell was invented.

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.

1980: The world’s first onshore wind farm was constructed in New Hampshire (US).

1991: The world’s first offshore wind farm, the Vindeby Wind Farm, was constructed in Denmark. 

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.

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.

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

How Has the Green Energy Market Developed Recently

Solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and wave energy are by definition both green and renewable energy. Renewable energy is infinite by definition because the resources naturally replace themselves over time.

Driven by decreasing costs and improved technology, renewable energy capacity has grown over 4 fold from 2000-2022, increasing from 754 gigawatts (GW) to 3,372 GW. This is as more and more effort is put into reducing global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to mitigate climate change.

Most recently, global renewable energy capacity increased by 9.6% (295 GW) in 2022 to reach 3,372 GW globally.

Solar energy saw the highest increase at 22% (192 GW), followed by wind at 9% (75 GW), hydropower at 2% (21 GW), bioenergy at 5% (8 GW), and geothermal at 181 megawatts (MW).

Renewable energy capacity additions in 2022 also varied by region:

  • Asia: Installed capacity increased by 60% (175 GW) to reach 1.63 terawatts (TW), or 48% of the global total. China alone added 141 GW of capacity.
  • Europe: Installed capacity increased by 8.8% (57.3 GW).
  • Oceania: Installed capacity increased by 10.6% (5.2 GW), largely due to increases in Australia.
  • Africa: Installed capacity increased by 4.8% (2.7 GW).

What Is the Present Status of Green Energy

The best data currently available to track green energy is the data we have on renewable energy because all green energy is also classified as renewable energy. Renewable energy is also tracked much more closely than green energy as a whole.

Globally, approximately 14% of our primary energy consumption (heating, transportation, and electricity) currently comes from renewable energy technologies. This is up from 11% in 2019.

Illustration of the Share of primary energy from renewable sources from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Share of primary energy from renewable sources

We generated roughly 8,500 TWh of energy from renewables in 2022, over half of which came from hydropower.

Illustration of Modern renewable energy generation by source, World from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Modern renewable energy generation by source, World

In terms of electricity generation, hydropower accounts for the majority at roughly 51%, followed by wind at 25%, solar at 15%, and other renewables (e.g., geothermal, wave, and tidal energy) at 9%.

Illustration of Renewable electricity generation from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Renewable electricity generation, World

Although renewable energy usage has increased in the 21st century, only a few countries currently have renewables as their primary energy source. The vast majority of countries still have a long way to go. 

Iceland is the world leader in renewable energy, sourcing over 85% of its primary energy supply from domestically produced renewable energy sources in 2022. Following Iceland’s lead are Norway, Sweden, Brazil, New Zealand, and Denmark. 

Illustration of  Share of primary energy from renewable sources from Our World in Data
Our World in Data: Share of primary energy from renewable sources, 2022

How Will the Future of Green Energy Look Like

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

How Green Energy Will Likely Develop in the Future

More specifically, each type of green 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 Green 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 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

The Paris Agreement specifically notes the transition away from fossil fuels and towards green 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 green energy usage and meeting the 2050 net zero scenario, including: 

  • 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.
  • 1995 – The International Hydropower Association (IHA): The IHA is a nonprofit membership association that serves as a global voice for hydropower. They operate in over 120 countries and manage over 1/3rd of global installed hydropower capacity. 
  • 2005 – Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC): The GWEC was founded as an international trade association for the wind energy industry. Their members represent 99% of the global installed wind power capacity.
  • 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

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 Green Energy

The 5 most common types of green energy are solar, wind, hydropower (micro/low), geothermal, and wave energy. 

Related: Are you interested in learning more about green energy? Check it out in this article here: Green 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 Wind Energy

Wind energy is the conversion of moving air into electrical energy. It is a form of solar energy that is caused by the uneven heating of the earth’s surface, irregularities of the earth’s surface, and the earth’s rotation. 

Wind: a current of air moving approximately horizontally, especially one strong enough to be felt”

Cambridge Dictionary

There are two main types of wind energy:

  1. Onshore wind energy: Wind turbines are located on land. Construction, transportation, maintenance cost, and infrastructure needed to transmit electricity from onshore turbines to consumers is low. 
  1. Offshore wind energy: Wind turbines are located in the ocean or freshwater. Construction, transportation, maintenance cost, and infrastructure needed to transmit electricity from offshore turbines to consumers is high. Offshore turbines are considerably larger than onshore turbines and can cost up to 20% more, and noise pollution, land use, and wildlife impact concerns are minimal compared to onshore turbines. 

To harness wind energy, the wind turns wind turbine blades around a rotor, which spins a generator to create electricity. 

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

What Are Currently the Different Types of Hydropower Energy

Hydropower energy is the conversion of moving water into electrical energy through the use of various types of hydroelectric facilities.

Hydropower: hydroelectric power (= the production of electricity by the force of fast-moving water)”

Cambridge Dictionary

Hydropower can be divided into three main categories depending on how many megawatts (MW) of power are generated.

Category of HydropowerGenerating Capacity
Micro hydropower100 kilowatts (kW) or less
Low-impact hydropower (low hydro)Between 100 kW and 10 MW
Large hydropower (large hydro)30 MW or more

Green hydropower energy refers to only micro and low-hydropower, which have minimal emissions and impact on the environment. 

Related: Are you interested in learning more about wind energy? Check it out in this article here: Hydropower 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

Final Thoughts

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

The establishment of the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) have helped to develop the green energy industry, which today generates over 8,500 terawatt-hours of electricity.

Green 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 green energy companies, and decreasing costs will heavily influence the future of green energy.

Stay impactful,

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