Solar Optimism and Coal Alarmism a Century Ago

From MasterResource

By Robert Bradley Jr. — April 19, 2023

“The supply of coal and oil, [Frank Shuman] opined, would eventually be depleted. ‘One thing I feel sure of,’ he wrote prophetically in a 1914 Scientific American article, ‘is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.’”

Energy history brings perspective and caution to the real-world prospects of dilute, intermittent energies becoming 21st century mainstays. The wisdom of history also checks the notion that solar (and wind) are infant industries in need of ‘temporary’ government subsidies. [1]

I recently encountered a history piece about an early solar entrepreneur, Frank Shuman, written by Christopher Dougherty nine years ago for a Philadelphia magazine. Excerpts from Frank Shuman: Finding The Future In Tacony, A Century Ago follow.

Nearly a century ago, Philadelphia solar energy pioneer Frank Shuman toiled in obscurity, dreaming–and building–a solar powered device he felt would change the way the world made energy and did work…. Shuman’s “Sun Engine” is a poignant reminder that while humanity has been slow to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we have certainly not lacked the technology, or foresight, to do so. On the expansive lawn between an ivy-covered house and workshop at Disston and Ditman Streets, Shuman integrated his deep knowledge of glass, optics, and convection heating to create a powerful array capable of doing actual work.

Shuman, a consummate inventor with 64 patents to his name, closely followed international developments in solar power. In 1906, he set the controls for the heat of the sun … he insulated boxes, built semi-convex reflectors around them to concentrate the sun’s rays, put them on swivels to follow the sun’s track, placed his water in a vacuum to lower its boiling point and—in a major breakthrough—attached a low pressure steam engine to the array.

In the early 20th Century, Philadelphia was an unlikely seat of solar technology; arguably for most of the 19th Century, the city was an R&D hub for fossil fuel utilization as well as a primary consumer of coal and producer of refined oil products. Beginning in the early part of the 19th Century the two seats of scientific wisdom, the American Philosophical Society and Franklin Institute popularized new techniques and methods of burning the ever-abundant anthracite coal….

For Shuman, to fail to embrace solar power was to invite social calamity. The problem was simply mathematical: there are finite resources like coal and oil whereas the sun’s power was infinite. The supply of coal and oil, he opined, would eventually be depleted. “One thing I feel sure of,” he wrote prophetically in a 1914 Scientific American article, “is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.”

Based on the output of his device, he reasoned that an array covering 20,250 square miles in an unpopulated portion of Africa’s Sahara Desert would produce the same amount of energy as all of the coal mined in 1909. Displaying an understanding of the social value of solar, he urged “…all far-sighted engineers and inventors to work in this direction” not only for their own profit but “the eternal welfare of the human race’.”

Frederick Blount Warren, writing for Technical World Magazine in 1907 after a visit to Tacony, was more expansive in tabulating the benefits of solar:

And now, suppose a moment is given to contemplation of the changes that will have been wrought when solar-power has been developed as fully as the steam engine is at the present time… Mankind might then begin to receive its birthright of an uncontaminated atmosphere, health and purity would once more find a foothold in the constitutions of future generations….

Engineering News profiled Shuman in 1909, Nature magazine did so in 1912, and in a 1911 feature, the New York Times proclaimed [a] “Method to Harness the Sun is Found; Engineer says that Frank Shuman of Philadelphia has solved the problem.” ….

Final Comment

Hope springs eternal. The notion that the sun’s energy can be converted into electricity because it is just there to be concentrated is naivete. There is such a thing as physics to explain how the sun’s work over the ages has created a dense, reliable stock of potential energy versus a dilute, intermittent flow from the sun.


[1] As Milton and Rose Friedman warned: “The infant industry argument is a smoke screen. The so-called infants never grow up.” Free to Choose (1979), pp. 5–6.

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Tom Halla
April 19, 2023 2:13 pm

The diffuseness and energy storage issues have no real solutions.

Bryan A
Reply to  Tom Halla
April 19, 2023 2:16 pm

Solar Sick Days can be a biotch as well

Reply to  Tom Halla
April 19, 2023 2:20 pm

Oil and coal—ultimate energy storage units.

Bryan A
Reply to  traildawg
April 19, 2023 9:33 pm

And a few other things Oil, Gas and Coal give us that Solar cannot…
Strong Steel
Pure Silicon
Asphalt Paving
Synthetic Rubber Tires (cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles)
Lightweight Plastic auto components
Cell Phones
Desktop PCs
Petroleum Jelly
Nylon Tents
Solar Panels
Electronic Components (transistors, resisters, capacitors, transformers, IC Chips etc.)
Garbage Bags
…(funny you can’t get disposable plastic grocery bags but still can get plastic trash bags)

Just to name a few

Tell them all goodbye or continue to drill for Oil and Gas and mine Coal

Hey, as long as we are drilling for Oil and Gas and mining for Coal (to make steel and purify silicon), why not use the high density energy sources as actual energy sources

Dave Andrews
Reply to  Bryan A
April 20, 2023 7:37 am

Re steel

The ‘faithful’ are putting their eggs in hydrogen production of fossil free steel. Hybrit in Sweden have developed a direct reduction process where hydrogen is produced from water using renewable electricity. It produces sponge iron. They are in the process of upgrading the facility to produce 1m tonnes pa.

The World Steel Organisation ( estimates 1881 Million tonnes (Mt) of steel will be produced in 2023!

Long way to go yet for the hydrogen brigade.

Hybrit make much of the fact its process does not produce CO2 – it does,however, produce water vapour 🙂

Bryan A
Reply to  Dave Andrews
April 20, 2023 8:07 am

Isn’t Vaporized H2O a far more powerful GHG than CO2?

Last edited 1 month ago by Bryan A
Bryan A
April 19, 2023 2:14 pm

The sun would be a perfect source of continuous energy…
…if only Clouds didn’t get in the way
…if only it could be used for generation 24/7/365
…if only it could generate electricity when demanded during peak usage hours
…if only it could be converted to usable electricity at a greater percentage
…if only panels didn’t get dirty or covered by snow
…if only coal mining were allowed again for coking coal
…if only it were reliable…

AGW is Not Science
Reply to  Bryan A
April 19, 2023 2:22 pm

You forgot:

If only all the energy inputs into making the solar “collection devices” were not all from fossil fuels, thereby renderingthewhole thing a tail-chasing exercise

If only the solar collection devices were durable and didn’t require replacement every 15-20 years

If only the decommissioned solar devices did not create a large stream of toxic waste.

Bryan A
Reply to  AGW is Not Science
April 19, 2023 7:40 pm

I was going to include something about 90% of panels being poorly made by slave labor in China, but I didn’t want to be accused of denigrating Solar Panels

Josh Scandlen
Reply to  AGW is Not Science
April 21, 2023 6:07 am

I’ve asked for years, “how many PV panels would it take to create just 1 PV panel?”
And the “greens” never have an answer, other than silliness and accusations. These are not smart people we’re dealing with.

David Dibbell
April 19, 2023 2:22 pm

Great article!

“[1] As Milton and Rose Friedman warned: “The infant industry argument is a smoke screen. The so-called infants never grow up.” Free to Choose (1979), pp. 5–6.”

That was a great book, which I read in the mid ’80’s. I highly recommend it.

Izaak Walton
April 19, 2023 2:24 pm

There is such a thing as physics to explain how the sun’s work over the ages has created a dense, reliable stock of potential energy versus a dilute, intermittent flow from the sun.”

Which might be true but it is equally true that the world is using its reliable stock faster than it is being discovered and also a lot faster than that stock is being replenished. So what happens then?

Frank from NoVA
Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 19, 2023 2:39 pm

Plan A (conventional energy) works well, but may deplete centuries from now. Plan B (wind & solar) will never work. So logically, one would choose Plan A, while devoting a fraction of the resources no longer squandered on Plan B to research Plan C.

Reply to  Frank from NoVA
April 19, 2023 3:30 pm

Plan C is right before our eyes as we speak –

Frank from NoVA
Reply to  Mr.
April 19, 2023 4:04 pm

I would agree that nuclear is technologically viable. The question is how soon it becomes economically viable, which I assume doesn’t happen until the same progressives that oppose fossil fuels get over their opposition to nuclear.

Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 19, 2023 6:19 pm

“So what happens then?”

This question does not really make any sense (because you preface the question with ‘it is happening now’ … you don’t say what your future guess is. Do you think we will wake up one morning and there won’t be any stock to be had?)

… but to answer in the context given; ‘Over time access to the stock would become more limited, natural pressures would then result in less use of the stock & an incentive for suitable replacement(s) would result. Given a replacement of greater efficiency there would be a snowball effect and a spreading of efficiency/wealth; but, given a replacement(s) of lesser efficiencies there would be a contraction of overall efficiency/wealth, and/or a reduction of the users.’

My question to you: Why do you want to force (today) a lesser efficiency stock replacement; and why do feel that you (or anyone) has the right to decide how and where the efficiency/wealth contraction should occur, and/or which users of the stock should simply cease to exist?

Izaak Walton
Reply to  DonM
April 19, 2023 9:11 pm

I have no desire to force anything on anyone nor do I see how my comments could be construed to suggest that I did.

Now almost everyone concedes that fossil fuel stocks are finite and since we are consuming them at an exponentially increasing rate it should also be obvious that we are going to run out at some point in the future. Most estimates suggest that there is less than 100 years of conventional oil and gas left and probably another 100 years or so of shale reserves. So even being generous within 500 years the world is going to have to give up fossil fuels.

Now you can look at resources like “Sustainability with the hot air” where the calculations are all done and the only possible options are:
(a) Breeder reactions using Uranium recovered from sea-water
(b) Deuterium-Deuterium fusion (Deuterium-Trittium is a no starter)
(c) Solar energy

Now of the three the only one that seems possible is solar with other sources like wind and tidal providing small amounts of backup generation.

Now if there has to be a contraction of overall wealth do you not think it is better that we admit it upfront and start planning for it?

Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 20, 2023 3:38 am

But remember, solar is not renewable. Eventually the sun will run out of hydrogen!

Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 20, 2023 4:55 am

Saying something is finite means nothing from a resources usage standpoint. Start multiplying 100X100 and kept doing it continuously for the rest of your life. The number you have when you die is finite.

The appropriate concept is scarcity. Scarcity relative to demand is reflected in prices of commodities. As prices rise, incentives are created for substitutes.

There is 100+ years of natural gas in the US given at current consumption levels. This is available at very reasonable costs as compared to solar and wind.

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 20, 2023 5:17 am

“Most estimates suggest that there is less than 100 years of conventional oil and gas left and probably another 100 years or so of shale reserves.”

Sure, and as that happens, their price will slowly rise and other forms of energy will be more economical than fossil fuels. Certainly by the time we run out of fossil fuels- fusion reactors will be feasible. So you can argue about climate change but arguing to end the use of fossil fuels because SOMEDAY they’ll run out shows no comprehension of markets.

Reply to  Joseph Zorzin
April 20, 2023 5:41 am

Yep! It’s amazing how many people lack understanding of markets

Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 20, 2023 7:20 am

Izaak: you need to do a little research on the abiogenic theory of oil. Thomas Gold wrote a book “The Deep Hot Biosphere” and most recently Jerome Corsi put out a new book “The Truth, About Energy, Global Warming and Climate Change”. Both of these books will challenge the limited oil theory of M. King Hubbert.

Dave Andrews
Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 20, 2023 8:05 am

How many people in 1900 could foresee that we would be putting men on the moon in 1969?

We have no idea what future energy provision might be like. We just don’t need to panic about what we currently have that is very successful eventually running out and replace it with unreliable forms of energy now.

Reply to  Izaak Walton
April 20, 2023 10:59 am

1) Who said there has to be a contraction … I won’t answer a question that starts with an invalid premise. There may be a contraction, or there may be an innovation replacement that is better; if central planning considers a contraction as the best or only alternative, innovation goes out the window and you get the self-fulfilling prophesy .

2) linear, geometric, exponential…. At this point in time I would not model fossil fuel extraction to be represented by exponential growth (as you stated). Even if it were, it would not continue as such. There will not be the assumed and/or purposely exaggerated (by some) exponential growth until a massive crash . Costs will increase … use will decline … replacement and/or contraction will occur (See Joseph Zorzin comment). Full knowledge of what is happening will allow for the best response, not forced conversion.

3) Your definition of ‘start planning for it’ and my defn must be very different. Is banning pipelines ‘planning’? Is restricting drilling/removal planning? Is subsidizing EV, solar, wind, to the extent that it increases overall costs ‘planning’? Is banning diesel vehicles, or retail sales, considered ‘planning’? From my perspective, all of that is considered action, not planning.

4) I need an honest answer from you…. Are you in favor of eliminating or restricting the use of private diesel or gas vehicles within the next 10 years? Keep in mind that your honest answer needs to tie in with your above “I have no desire to force anything on anyone nor do I see how my comments could be construed to suggest that I did.”

5) Your statement/question, “So, what happens then?”, indicates that you have already decided that there is a ‘when’ … that we will fall off the cliff if we are not forced (by a central authority) to ‘plan’. As such, it is reasonable to assume that you are on board with the force.

(eg. I have to have transportation; I use the most efficient there is, for my purpose; taking away that efficiency forces me to do something I don’t want to do.)

And, I will let others address the solar silliness that would absolutely force a massive contraction of standard of living … along with a reduction of population.

Last edited 1 month ago by DonM
April 19, 2023 2:42 pm

There are plenty of good ideas but damn few that are practical. We need practical.

Rud Istvan
April 19, 2023 3:04 pm

Coal, oil, and natural gas are just sequestered solar energy—all derived from photosynthesis, albeit very slowly over geologic time. They will never run out, but they will eventually deplete to the point where extraction costs exceed alternatives. Opinions vary on when ‘peak production’ of each is hit. ‘Peak’ is also a misnomer, since their extraction functions are gammas (NOT the originally assumed logistics functions), with low slope maxima and long downside tails. There never will be a catastrophic sudden peak in any. The data based math just is. Sorry alarmists, you lose another science debate bigly.

IMO (based on three previous ebooks), the fossil fuel depletion shoe that pinches first is liquid transportation fuels derived mainly from crude oil. But that is still a few decades off, and partial substitutes are slowly developing. Slow in this context is probably OK. Zero climate emergency (net zero) need be declared based on majorly faulty climate models. (See my comment to WE’s recent ‘Doubled ITCZ’ post for major model fault adds.)

Reply to  Rud Istvan
April 25, 2023 7:20 am

We’ve “run out of oil” several times, beginning in the 1920’s. The thing to remember about peak oil is that “proven oil reserves” means oil deposits that have been explored sufficiently to estimate their size, depth, etc., and that can be extracted at a profit at current technology and prices. Raise the price, they can drill deeper or in a worse climate and “suddenly” there’s more oil. Improve the technology so they can drill deeper for less, and there’s a glut of oil.

In 1973-74 there was an “oil crisis” with production coming up slightly short, and then OPEC taking advantage of this by reducing their production and demanding much higher prices. By the early 1980’s, many new oil companies successfully brought in wells tapping pools of oil that had been thought out of reach. The price plummeted; by my estimation, when corrected for the general inflation, gasoline was selling for substantially less in 1983 than before the oil crisis a decade earlier. Many “successful” wildcatters found that their oil wasn’t selling for enough to make the payments on the loans they had taken out to finance acquiring rights and drilling. They literally drove themselves into bankruptcy – and took down many small banks and credit unions that had incautiously made those loans.

April 19, 2023 3:43 pm

In 1914, nuclear power had not been thought of, that took until the 1930s.

We have known for many decades that nuclear power is a better long term source of power than solar, but then we have also known for decades that the Greens will oppose anything that can actually work. Only now are the general public starting to wake up to how incredibly destructive the Greens are, and regrettably it seems that there will be even more Green destruction before it can be turned around.

Frank from NoVA
Reply to  Mike Jonas
April 19, 2023 7:15 pm

‘[W]e have also known for decades that the Greens will oppose anything that can actually work.’

That’s because they’re not really ‘green’. They’re just the faction of the Left that is using radical ‘environmentalism’ to overthrow what’s left of (classical) liberalism. And once they’ve achieved that, we can expect real environmental degradation to commence on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the heyday of the USSR.

Reply to  Mike Jonas
April 19, 2023 7:27 pm

100% in agreement Mike,
If and it is a big IF rising levels of emissions are going to cause problems in the future the Greens should be able to see the need for available and affordable electricity.They want to outlaw fossil fuels but they are against Nuclear which will provide that energy .
The question has to be asked why?
And also why should western countries destroy their manufacturing industries through lack of and cost of energy , but they seem to be quite happy for China and India to rapidly increase their use of coal to manufacture many products needed .
Why can these green leaning governments not see what is happening around the world and at least set up a inter country task force to plan and build new Nuclear power stations urgently .
Hydro electricity is actually solar electricity one step removed but the greens are against hydro and come up with all sorts of objections when a new hydro dam is mentioned .
The stupidest objection is that the dams silt up ,which is nonsense as the stored water is usually only the top 2 or 3 meters of the lake behind the dam.
We have 8 hydro stations on the Waikato river the oldest is the Arapuni Dam which was commissioned in 1929 that is 94 years ago and still producing (green ) electricity .
How long will it take for the populations of western countries to wake up where this madness is leading us to ?

Kevin Kilty
April 19, 2023 4:39 pm

In the Dover book “Soap Bubbles”, by C.V. Boys, there is some biographical materials indicating that Boys invested quite a lot of effort in developing a solar powered engine to pump irrigation water in Egypt. It turns out Boys was working with Shuman on this project, and they managed to built a 50hp solar engine. What became of the project I learned through a book written by Robert Vaughn Enochian for the Department of Ag in 1982 about wind and solar irrigation (Recall that 1982 was the tail end of the energy crisis and we were sure to run out of fossil fuels presently).

The availability of cheap fossil fuels after WWI put an end to the Boys/Shuman collaboration.

Chris Hanley
April 19, 2023 6:08 pm

The fundamental problem is, given current collection and storage technology, solar PV delivers only a fraction of the net energy that legacy generation delivers and if adopted globally at the expense of legacy generation would consume almost as much energy as it produces.
The only reason a percentage of solar PV is currently viable in some locations is that it relies of fossil fuels for its existence.

Last edited 1 month ago by Chris Hanley
April 20, 2023 1:12 am

Before coal you had wood being used for heating and also being heat treated to make charcoal. Just a more direct use of the sun than coal but not as direct as solar panels however wood and charcoal can be stored.

April 20, 2023 5:59 am

As a young engineer in the late 70s I was tasked with monitoring the performance of solar panels perched atop the engineering building. This was going to be our source of power in the upcoming few years. We were told that it was almost ready for prime time. Well here we are over 40 years later and solar is still almost ready for prime time.

Lee Riffee
April 20, 2023 7:39 am

Several years ago my mom had to have a huge old oak tree taken down on her property. I had the tree service fell it and leave the trunk for firewood and then I hired someone to split it. Once it was cut down, one day I decided to count the rings to see how old the tree was. I determined that the tree was about 106 years old.
once the tree was cut up and split, it provided about 4 1/2 cords of useable wood. Which was about the amount required to heat my mother’s home for a single Maryland winter.
So there you have it – arguably the oldest and most refined solar collector in existence (trees and plants, they have had millions of years to develop and perfect this) took 106 years to gather and store sufficient energy to heat an average sized three bedroom home for one winter. And even then, that home still burned about 120 gallons of fuel oil per winter, as of course the wood stove got banked at night and went out when no one was home.

And I could never figure why my mom wasn’t eligible for some kind of tax break – after all, she was heating with mostly renewable energy! Could also be deemed “second hand solar”….

Josh Scandlen
April 21, 2023 6:12 am

Don’t forget the WSJ article in 1978 that the Carter Admin said Solar would meet 20% of US ENERGY needs by 2000…not just electricity but energy on the whole!

Such a clown show

April 21, 2023 10:02 am

For some additional pictures of the Shuman inventions and some others, you may have a look at this document (dated May 1st, 1914 … written in french … sorry !) (browse pages 238 to 247)

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