Energy history would perhaps have been different in the 20th century, if the “George Cove affair” had followed a different trajectory.
One of the arguments put forward to defend fossil fuels is that they would have represented a historical necessity, in the absence of a viable alternative during most of the 20th century.e century. According to this argument, we should be grateful to fossil fuels for accelerating our development. What if I told you that this alternative existed, but that it may have been sabotaged from the start by the interests of the fossil industries ?
By researching the economics of clean energy innovation, I came across a little-known story: that of Canadian inventor George Cove, one of the world’s first entrepreneurs in the field of renewable energy. George Cove invented domestic solar panels that looked eerily similar to those installed on roofs today: they even had of a battery rudimentary to continue functioning when the sun did not shine. Except it wasn’t the 1970s. Or even the 1950s. It was 1905.
George Cove’s company, Sun Electric Generator Corporation, based in New York, was capitalized at US$5 million, or approximately US$160 million at the current currency rate. In 1909, his idea attracted media attention. The magazine Modern Eelectricfor example, highlighted how “ with two days of sunshine… (the device) stores enough electrical energy to light an ordinary house for a week. »
The article noted that cheap solar energy had the potential to free people from poverty, “ bringing them cheap light, heat and electricity, and freeing the crowds from the constant struggle to buy bread “. He went on to speculate that even airplanes might one day be powered by batteries charged by the sun. The future of clean energy seemed to be within reach.
A troubled story
Then, according to an article published in the New York Herald On October 19, 1909, George Cove was kidnapped. The condition of his release? Give up his solar patent and close his business, which the entrepreneur refused. He was later released near the Bronx Zoo.
But after this incident, its solar energy business suddenly stopped. Which is all the more surprising since in the years preceding his kidnapping, he had developed successive improvements to his solar device.
I cannot say with certainty that special interests were involved in this matter. At the time, some accused George Cove of staging the kidnapping for publicity, although this seemed out of character for him, especially since there was no shortage of media attention. Other sources suggest that a former investor could have been at the origin.
What we do know, however, is that young companies in the fossil fuel industry have often resorted to unscrupulous practices towards their competitors. Solar energy posed a threat because it is an inherently democratic technology – everyone has access to the sun – which can empower citizens and to communitiesunlike fossil fuels, which required empire building.
Likewise, the legendary inventor Thomas Edison electrocuted horses, farm animals and even someone sentenced to death using the alternating current of his rival Nikola Tesla to show how dangerous he was, so that Edison’s own technology, direct current, would be favored. George Cove’s Sun Electric, with its off-grid solar power, would have hurt Edison’s case for building the grid-powered electricity by coal-fired power plants.
Although there were scattered efforts in solar development after the removal of George Cove, there was no major commercial activity for the next four decades until the concept was relaunched by Bell Labs, the research arm of the Bell telephone company in the United States. Meanwhile, coal and oil were able to expand at an unprecedented rate and were supported by taxpayer money and government policy. We can say that the climate crisis was already underway.
Four lost decades
When I discovered the story of George Cove, I wanted to know what the world had lost in those 40 years and I performed a thought experiment. I used a concept called Wright’s Law, which applies to most renewable energies. This is the idea that as production increases, costs decrease through improved industrial processes and learning.
Thanks to this principle, I calculated the year where solar energy would have become cheaper than coal. To do this, I assumed that solar power would have experienced modest growth between 1910 and 1950, and then calculated how this additional “experience” would have translated into faster cost declines.
In a world where Cove was successful and solar competed with fossil fuels from the start, it would have beaten coal by 1997, when Bill Clinton was president and the Spice Girls were at their peak. In reality, this event only happened in 2017.
A rereading of the 20th century
Of course, it is assumed here that the energy system would have remained unchanged. However, it is possible that if solar energy had existed as early as 1910, the entire trajectory of energy innovation would have been very different. The power grid and railways used to support the coal economy would have received far less investment.
It may also be that more recent industrial advances were essential for solar power to take off and that Cove’s continued work ultimately did not result in major change. Ultimately, it’s impossible to know exactly which path humanity would have taken, but I bet that avoiding a 40-year hiatus in the development of solar energy could have saved the world enormous amounts of CO₂ emissions.
While it’s painful to think about those big “what ifs” as the climate collapses before our eyes, it may provide us with something useful: knowing that getting energy from the sun is no big deal. a radical idea, not even new. It’s an idea as old as fossil fuel companies themselves.
The domination of fossil fuels, which continued into the 21st centurye century, was not inevitable – it was a choice, but one over which few of us had any say. Fossil fuels were supported first because we did not understand their deadly effects on the environment, then because the lobby had become so powerful that it resisted to change.
But there is hope: solar energy today provides some of the cheapest electricity available to mankind never knew, and costs continue to fall as it is deployed. The faster we go, the more we save. If we embrace the optimism of Cove’s time and make the right technological choices, the sun-powered world he imagined so many years ago is still attainable.
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