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The History of Solar Energy

Solar energy has been undergoing innovations and revolutions for far longer than most people imagine. Before the Oil crisis of the 1970s or the impending climate change problems of today, Solar power was undergoing many advancements in a long history of development that spans back more than a century.


Solar Motors

The first solar motor underwent development in 1860, when Auguste Mouchout secured a patent to develop a motor that could run on solar power. He saw this as a means of reducing reliance on coal, and worked on the design for over 20 years.  His design used solar heat and a reflector to heat water and produce steam capable of powering a motor. While the device succeeded in terms of technical capability, it soon lost economic practicality as coal prices dropped and shipping across Europe became much easier and more efficient thanks to the steam engine trains.


Solar Mirrors

Following the work of Mouchout, William Adams developed a plan to create a series of mirrors on tracks that could be adjusted to follow the movement of the sun. The heat captured from these reflectors was used to heat water for steam capable of operating a 2.5 horsepower steam engine. Most modern solar plants still use Adam’s basic design of mirrors that reflect to a receiver tower or a boiler to generate steam energy.


Parabolic Trough

In 1870, Swedish engineer John Ericsson developed a design much like Mouchout’s, but with the added concept of a parabolic trough that allowed the design to forgo the expensive tracking equipment. This is now a standard in modern solar plants, as this design simplifies collection of solar energy without sacrificing much efficiency.


Commercial Use of Solar Power

In 1892, Aubrey Eneas developed a solar and steam powered machine that used almost 2,000 mirrors to create energy. He wasn’t able to sell his design until 1903, however a series of weather-related disasters caused investors to lose interest in his work.


One year before the end of Eneas’ company, Henry E. Willsie began developing a design that could offer continuous power by heating large amounts of water that could be kept warm in an insulated tub. Using vaporizing pipes inside the basin to serve as boilers,  he used sulfur dioxide passing through the pipes to create a high-pressure vapor, which passed to the engine, operated it, and exhausted into a condensing tube. There it cooled, returned to a liquid state, and was reused. Unfortunately his machine was very large and startup costs were prohibitive, and buyers never signed on.


For the next half century many patents were issues, but there was a marked lull in the development of solar technologies. The oil revolution and easy shipping via train made solar energy impractical when compared to fossil fuels.


During the 1970s, OPEC restricted the flow of oil to the United States, which sparked a new wave of innovation in renewable and alternative energy production methods. Solar energy was a part of the renaissance. Today the global solar market is expected grow 15% in 2016, with countries like China, Brazil, and the United States driving demand for solar power and solar technology.


InduSoft has been active in the solar industry as well! You can watch a demo of InduSoft Web Studio below with a demo of an HMI on a solar panel, or visit our solar industry section.

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