Many of us assume that the nation's first serious push to develop renewable fuels was spawned while angry Americans waited in gas lines during the "energy crisis" of the 1970s. Held hostage by the OPEC oil embargo, the country suddenly seemed receptive to warnings from scientists, environmentalists, and even a few politicians to end its over-reliance on finite coal and oil reserves or face severe economic distress and political upheaval.
But efforts to design and construct devices for supplying renewable energy actually began some 100 years before that turbulent time--ironically, at the very height of the Industrial Revolution, which was largely founded on the promise of seemingly inexhaustible supplies of fossil fuels. Contrary to the prevailing opinion of the day, a number of engineers questioned the practice of an industrial economy based on nonrenewable energy and worried about what the world's nations would do after exhausting the fuel supply.
More important, many of these visionaries did not just provide futuristic rhetoric but actively explored almost all the renewable energy options familiar today. In the end, most decided to focus on solar power, reasoning that the potential rewards outweighed the technical barriers. In less than 50 years, these pioneers developed an impressive array of innovative techniques for capturing solar radiation and using it to produce the steam that powered the machines of that era. In fact, just before World War I, they had outlined all of the solar thermal conversion methods now being considered. Unfortunately, despite their technical successes and innovative designs, their work was largely forgotten for the next 50 years in the rush to develop fossil fuels for ...
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... low or political instability again erupts in oil-rich regions.
Toward that end, we must change the prevailing attitude that solar power is an infant field born out of the oil shocks and the environmental movement of the past 25 years. Such misconceptions lead many to assert that before solar power can become a viable alternative, the industry must first pay its dues with a fair share of technological evolution.
Solar technology already boasts a century of R&D, requires no toxic fuel and relatively little maintenance, is inexhaustible, and, with adequate financial support, is capable of becoming directly competitive with conventional technologies in many locations. These attributes make solar energy one of the most promising sources for many current and future energy needs. As Frank Shuman declared more than 80 years ago, it is "the most rational source of power."
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