This thought piece from the Institute for New Economic Thinking's Dr Sugandha Srivastav draws on historical records, newspaper archives and modern analysis to explore the story of George Cove – a renewable energy inventor and entrepreneur who lived in the early 1900s – and its relevance to today’s clean energy transition.
George Cove had a patent for his solar energy device and a registered company called “Sun Electric Generator Corporation”. Cove’s invention could produce electricity by harnessing the photovoltaic effect and power small household devices.
The idea was to sell his device through a corporation and pursue further inventive activity to make the solar panel more efficient. However, this novel idea, which had attracted noteworthy investors and captured the imagination of many science writers and general newspapers of the time, would be prematurely terminated. George Cove was kidnapped and told to give up his patents and shut down his business.
Contemporaries like Edison Electric were building out the power grid using coal-fired electricity and Standard Oil was consolidating its hold over the market by buying out any type of competitor at the time. Ruthless practices to drive out competitors were commonplace during this period of history.
George Cove’s Sun Electric corporation never recovered from the kidnapping and the “fantastic sun ray machine” was forgotten. From the demise of Sun Electric in 1910-11, it would take another 40 years for Bell Labs to invent the practical silicon solar cell, 60 years for NASA to use solar panels for space probes, and 100 years for the United Kingdom to install its first ever utility-scale solar farm.
How would the world have looked had there been no disruption in solar power development, if Sun Electric had continued to operate as company and innovate in solar panels? What if Sun Electric became a household name the same way Edison Electric did? This thought experiment explores a forgotten history of solar power and questions how the world may have looked had these early efforts been nurtured and supported.
Using a set of conservative assumptions, it finds that solar PV could have become cheaper than coal at least a decade sooner, which would have limited the rapid expansion of coal capacity in early 2000s. However, this thought exercise is subject to the usual critiques of any counterfactual estimation. What is far less debatable is that there was an ambitious vision of a solar powered world in the early 1900s that disappeared for many decades and is only being resurrected today.