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Humankind has had an interest in harnessing the energy from natural, renewable sources such as wind and the sun for hundreds of years. One of the earliest developments in the solar energy sector occurred when Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure created what he called “hot boxes.” In 1767, de Saussure built five glass boxes of varying sizes that could be stacked inside each other. He then exposed them to the sun for several hours and measured the interior temperature of each one. He later used this equipment to cook food while he was on an expedition.
When it comes to wind energy, people for thousands of years had learned how to channel the wind and use it for a variety of purposes. But one of the first steps toward using it to create electricity took place in June of 1887. This is when the first windmill for electricity production was built by Professor James Blyth of Anderson's College, Glasgow (now Strathclyde University). It took three different versions before he was able to generate enough power for his home in Scotland, which he did for 25 years.
Although it is not widely known, one of the first incidents in history of the use of biofuels for transportation occurred when Henry Ford designed the Model T. This vehicle, which was manufactured between 1903 and 1926, was originally designed to run on hemp-derived biofuel. At the time there were huge supplies of crude oil, and hemp took time to grow, harvest, and process, so oil became the primary source of fuel for automobiles. Hybrid cars, which are powered with a combination of fuel sources such as gasoline and electricity, have been under development for centuries, but the first modern-day hybrid vehicle was the Toyota Prius, introduced to the market in 1997. Eighteen thousand vehicles were sold the first year. The Geo Metro, converted by Solectria Corporation, was the first electric four-passenger sedan powered by an alternating current motor and lead-acid batteries. It took eight hours to recharge and could travel 50 miles before losing power. Its first test drive occurred in 1994.
After the turn of the 20th century, there were more developments in both the solar and wind energy sectors. In 1908, William J. Bailey of the Carnegie Steel Company built a solar collector with copper coils and an insulated box, another step toward modern solar energy systems. In 1927, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Joe and Marcellus Jacobs opened the Jacobs Wind factory, producing wind turbine generators. The generators were used on farms to charge batteries and power lighting.
Developments and discoveries continued for the next 20 years, advancing the alternative energy industry. By 1954, scientists at Bell Labs were successful in developing the first silicon photovoltaic cell that was capable of converting enough solar energy into power that it could operate equipment there.
After the OPEC oil embargo and the public’s growing concern about America’s dependence on foreign oil, the 1970s became the turning point for the industry. In 1972, one of the first academic research organizations devoted to study of solar energy opened. Called the Institute of Energy Conversion, it was a part of the University of Delaware, and its mission was to develop thin-film photovoltaic and solar thermal systems.
The wind energy sector also continued to develop during the 1970s. By 1980 the world's first wind farm, which consisted of 20 turbines, was built in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, it was not a success due to turbine failure and other issues.
The solar energy sector had better luck in 1982, when the first megawatt-scale solar power system went online in Hisperia, California. It generated 1 megawatt of power. By the next year, solar power systems generated 21.3 megawatts, and achieved sales of $250 million. It took more than 10 years, though, before a solar power system entered the traditional, national power grid. This occurred in 1993, when Pacific Gas and Electric’s new solar power system in California joined the grid. It generated 500 kilowatts of power.
At the turn of the 21st century, wind energy and solar energy were still struggling for more widespread use. In 2002, the largest solar power plant in the northwest, the White Bluffs Solar Station, began generating 38.7 kilowatts in Richland, Washington. In 2009 the U.S. government announced the first framework for a wind energy development program that included leases, easements, and rights-of-way for environmentally responsible renewable energy development activities, including the sitting and construction of off-shore wind farms on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.
When it comes to biofuels, the EIA projects that their use will continue to grow over the next 20 years. The leading cause for this increase is the U.S. government’s requirement that ethanol and other biofuels be integrated with fossil fuels in gasoline and transportation fuels. It predicts that biofuel production will increase in the coming years, with ethanol accounting for the largest share of the increase. The EIA predicts that ethanol production will increase from 850,000 barrels per day in 2013 to 930,000 barrels per day by 2040, displacing a percentage of gasoline demand in 2040 on an energy-equivalent basis.
When it comes to geothermal energy, its first industrial use occurred near Pisa, Italy, in the late 18th century. Steam coming from natural vents there was used to extract boric acid from the hot pools. By 1904, Italian scientist Piero Ginori Conti created the first geothermal electric power plant, using steam to generate power.
By 1946, the first ground-source geothermal heat pump was installed at the Commonwealth Building in Portland, Oregon, and by the 1960s, Pacific Gas and Electric operated an 11-megawatt geothermal plant in San Francisco.
As of 2009, there were more than 60 geothermal power plants generating electricity in the United States, with new plants in development and coming online each year, e.g., in 2014, approximately 21 new power plants came online. As of 2014, geothermal sources generated nearly 16,000 megawatt hours of electricity in the United States.