One of the most refreshing changes to the political landscape of recent times has been the shifting of attitudes regarding energy capture, and the increasingly significant role that renewable sources of energy will play in modern, developed nations. A move away from a strict reliance on fossil fuels has developed over time from something seen as little more than a lofty and utopian ambition, to a necessity if we want to preserve a healthy and inhabitable environment for future generations to enjoy.
However, the truth of the matter is that renewable energy has rarely – if ever – been far from the heart of everyday life in Great Britain. From evidence of prehistoric activity unearthed by archaeology until the dawn of the industrial revolution, virtually all of the energy used for industry, agriculture, and domestic living was obtained from a renewable source.
The earliest examples of renewable energy in British history begin with the land clearances and agricultural developments of neolithic settlers, some seven thousand years ago. Remnants of burnt plant and organic matter make biomass our oldest fuel source: one that civilisations have utilised for warmth, cooking and construction since prehistory.
But that is not to say that renewable energy has ever been seen as a primitive alternative to fossil fuels, or a throttle to the pace of progress. On the contrary: renewable energy was the great driver of growth in Britain and across Europe throughout history. Hydrokinetic energy and water mills powered the Roman expansion into Britain and, by 1086, there were at least five and a half thousand water mills in the British isles.
With the adoption of coal (and, later, imported oil), heavy industry was able to flourish at an accelerated pace across the British Empire, while at home the use of water and windmills to power machinery and construction remained widespread. And with the discovery of electrical energy, scientists began to experiment with the idea of generating electricity from renewable sources. Two scientists at Kings’s College in London, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day produced photovoltaic effects with sellenium cells exposed to sunlight: the discovery upon which all solar energy has since been devised. It was a Scotsman, Professor James Blyth, who invented the world’s first wind turbine for generating electricity in 1887.
But it was only in the second half of the twentieth century when public opinion really began to shift back in favour of renewables primarily for the ecological benefits they afforded. Hydroelectric, wind, biomass, and solar photovoltaic cells have enjoyed increased investment in the second half of the twentieth century, and growing government support.
The Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Act of 1943 led to the construction of several hydroelectric power stations, including the Cruachan dam on Loch Awe in 1965. But it was 1991 before the Uks first on-shore wind farm went online, near Delabole in Cornwall. With the construction of 30 turbines off the Welsh coast between Prestatyn and Rhyl, Britain had its first off-shore wind farm in 2003. By 2007, the combined energy generated by wind power alone was measured at an impressive two gigawatts.
By 2012, and following a worldwide political shift towards renewable energy, the UK became home to approximately 288,000 solar energy projects and commercial ventures. Noting that solar technology was becoming increasingly versatile and scalable in its energy generation, the government set benchmark targets of four million solar-powered homes by 2020. This forms a significant portion of the broader objective that the UK should source fifteen per cent of its total power output from renewable means by the same year, building a cleaner and more sustainable future for all.
Throughout our history, renewable energy has been the norm, and fossil fuels are the scarce alternative which provides power for an accelerated expansion into industrialisation. As we begin to re-contextualise non-renewable energy as a powerful, yet limited, reserve fuel source rather than the norm, we can begin to look at our society in a whole new light.