If the first solar entrepreneur hadn’t been kidnapped, would fossil fuels have dominated the 20th century the way they did?

Could fossil fuels have maintained their dominance throughout the 20th century if the first solar entrepreneur had not been kidnapped? This is an intriguing question, often used to justify the historical necessity of fossil fuels. It suggests that we owe a debt of gratitude to fossil fuels for propelling our progress. However, what if I told you that there was a viable alternative to fossil fuels that may have been intentionally thwarted by fossil fuel interests from its very inception?

During my research into the economics of clean energy innovation, I stumbled upon an obscure story about Canadian inventor George Cove, one of the earliest pioneers of renewable energy.

Cove-designed household solar panels bear a striking resemblance to the ones we install in our homes today, complete with a basic battery to store energy for use during cloudy days. Remarkably, this occurred not in the 1970s, 1950s, or even the mid-20th century, but back in 1905.

Cove’s company, the Sun Electric Generator Corporation, headquartered in New York, received an initial capitalization of $5 million (equivalent to approximately $160 million in today’s currency).

By 1909, this innovative idea had garnered widespread media attention. In fact, a Modern Electric magazine article marveled at how “with just two days of sunlight… [the device] could store enough electrical energy to power a regular household for an entire week.”

The article envisioned how affordable solar energy could uplift people from poverty by providing them with economical lighting, heating, and power, freeing them from the perpetual struggle for survival. It even speculated about the potential for airplanes to be fueled by batteries charged by the sun. This narrative painted a picture of an accessible, clean energy future within reach.

Vested interests?

Then, on October 19, 1909, as reported by The New York Herald, Cove was kidnapped. The ransom for his release was an agreement to relinquish his solar patent and close down the company. Cove, however, refused to comply and was eventually set free near the Bronx Zoo.

Following this incident, Cove’s solar business saw a decline. This decline appears peculiar considering that in the years prior to the kidnapping, Cove had made significant advancements in the solar device, enhancing its capabilities with each iteration.

While it’s uncertain if vested interests played a role, some at the time accused Cove of orchestrating the kidnapping for publicity. However, this seems unlikely, especially considering the substantial media attention already surrounding the project. Other sources suggest that a former investor may have been involved.

What is well-known is that emerging fossil fuel companies often engage in unscrupulous practices against their competitors. Solar posed a threat as it is an inherently democratic technology—accessible to everyone through the sun—which could empower individuals and communities. This was unlike fossil fuels, which required building vast empires.

For instance, Standard Oil, under the leadership of the world’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, eliminated competition so effectively that the government had to introduce antitrust laws to combat monopolies.

Similarly, renowned inventor Thomas Edison conducted gruesome demonstrations, using his rival Nikola Tesla’s alternating current to electrocute horses, farm animals, and even a human on death row.

This was a tactic to portray alternating current as dangerous, aiming to promote Edison’s own technology, direct current.

Cove’s Sun Electric, with its off-grid solar approach, posed a threat to Edison’s business model of developing the electric power grid using coal-fired power.

Although scattered solar development efforts persisted after Cove’s kidnapping, there were no significant commercial activities for the next four decades until the concept was revitalized by Bell Labs, the research division of Bell Telephone Company in the US.

During this period, coal and oil experienced unprecedented growth, supported by taxpayer funding and government policies. The seeds of the climate crisis were arguably sown during this time.

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Four lost decades

When I stumbled upon Cove’s narrative, I became curious about the lost potential of those 40 years and decided to conduct a hypothetical scenario. I employed a concept called Wright’s law, applicable to most renewables—it posits that as production scales up, costs decrease due to process enhancements and learning.

Using this concept, I estimated the year when solar power would have become more cost-effective than coal. I made a modest assumption that solar power experienced gradual growth between 1910 and 1950, calculating how this additional “experience” would have accelerated cost reductions.

In a world where Cove succeeded, and solar could compete with fossil fuels right from the start, it would have surpassed coal as early as 1997—during Bill Clinton’s presidency and the heyday of the Spice Girls. However, in reality, this milestone wasn’t reached until 2017.

It’s important to remember that assuming solar power existed continuously from 1910 could have significantly altered the course of energy innovation. Perhaps more focus would have been placed on developing batteries to support widespread solar use, rather than investing heavily in electric grids and railways for coal.

On the other hand, advancements in manufacturing may have been crucial for solar to thrive, and Cove’s work might not have brought about major change. Predicting the exact path humanity would have taken is impossible, but it’s likely that avoiding a 40-year break in solar development could have significantly reduced carbon emissions.

Reflecting on this “what if” scenario, especially as we witness climate change, can empower us with an important realization: utilizing solar energy is not a new or radical idea—it’s as old as the fossil fuel industry itself.

The prolonged reliance on fossil fuels into the 21st century was not an inevitable fate; rather, it was a choice, albeit one many of us weren’t able to influence. Initially, fossil fuels were favored because their harmful environmental impacts weren’t fully understood. Later, their dominance persisted due to the overwhelming influence of lobbying against change.

But there’s hope: solar energy is now providing some of the most affordable electricity ever, and its costs are continuously dropping as we implement it more widely.

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The quicker we embrace solar technology, the more we save. By adopting the optimistic outlook seen during Cove’s era and making the right technology choices, we can still move toward the sun-powered world he envisioned all those years ago.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q1: Who is George Cove, and what role did he play in the history of solar energy?

A: George Cove was a Canadian inventor who, in 1905, designed household solar panels with basic battery storage, resembling modern solar panels. His company, the Sun Electric Generator Corporation, received significant funding and media attention for his innovative solar technology.

Q2: What happened to George Cove’s solar technology, and why did it decline?

A: In 1909, George Cove was kidnapped, and the ransom for his release was an agreement to relinquish his solar patent and close down the company. While the reasons for the decline are not entirely clear, the incident may have been orchestrated by vested interests, as solar posed a threat to fossil fuel companies.

Q3: How might the history of solar energy have been different if George Cove’s technology had not faced obstacles?

A: If Cove’s solar technology had continued to develop without interruptions, solar power could have become cost-effective compared to coal as early as 1997. Avoiding a 40-year break in solar development could have significantly reduced carbon emissions and altered the trajectory of energy innovation.

Conclusion:

The story of George Cove and his early solar technology raises questions about the path of energy innovation and the potential for solar energy to have been a more significant part of our history.

While the fossil fuel industry dominated the 20th century, it’s important to recognize that the prolonged reliance on fossil fuels was not an inevitable fate but a choice influenced by various factors. Solar energy is now providing affordable electricity, and its costs are continually decreasing.

By embracing solar technology, we can move toward a sun-powered world, as envisioned by early pioneers like George Cove. This serves as a reminder that solar energy is not a new or radical idea, but a renewable and sustainable choice that can help address the challenges of climate change.