Could a Solarpunk age have been born in 19th century France?
The world’s first photovoltaic cells were created by 19 year old Edmond Becquerel in 1839. Tinkering in his father’s lab, young Becquerel put silver chloride in an acidic solution, which was illuminated while connected to platinum electrodes, creating voltage and a current. The photovoltaic effect has also been known as the “Becquerel effect” courtesy of this jeune homme. (Footnote: Becquerel’s subsequent research on light would help to substantiate work by another 19th century pioneer in electromagnetism, Michael Faraday.)
About a generation after Becquerel’s discovery, Augustin Mouchot, a French math teacher, helped to create in the 1860s what may have been the first government funded solar power venture. Courtesy of funds from Napoleon III (who may have been worthier than any King Louis for the sobriquet of “Sun King”) Mouchot developed solar powered steam engines, leading to the world’s first solar power farm in what was French Algeria. Alas the prospects of the birth of a carbon free age were put on hold, courtesy of a French government report about recent efficiencies in coal mining and a free trade pact, the Cobden-Chevaliar treaty, with the United Kingdom.
Interrupted by macro-events, such as the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and free trade with the UK, the first Solar Age was prematurely born and went into coma, slowly awakening upon an announcement by Bell Labs in 1954 that it had developed solar cells with 6% efficiency. The New York Times trumpeted the promise of the “limitless energy of the sun” but it was still early days.
Coal would be supplanted by petroleum, as solar bided its time, apparently relegated to the roofs of homebuilding mavericks, progressive communes, research labs and science fairs.
Here we are 150-plus years after Becquerel, and cutting edge solar cells are at about 45% efficiency and climbing, albeit within the coddled R&D environment or for high end deep pocket situations for NASA’s needs in outer space, but those Frenchmen may yet have the last laugh by the 200th anniversary of Becquerel’s discovery with a solar power renaissance.
Augustin Mouchot, math teacher and solar steam innovator, father of the world’s first solar power farm.
But maybe the energy world’s frail step-sibling, may get to join the big kids’ table, pushing aside hydrocarbons.