12 October 2023

What if the world’s first solar entrepreneur wasn’t kidnapped?

Estimated reading time: 2 Minutes

Dr Sugandha Srivastav, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, has calculated the potential impact of an early 20th century crime that could have significantly delayed the development of solar energy.

While researching the history of solar panels, Dr Srivastav came across a striking and little-known fact: the first serious attempt to market solar panels and batteries for home owners and businesses was in 1905, by Canadian inventor and entrepreneur George Cove. His business gained momentum with a major patent in 1906 and in 1909 international commentators remarked how the device could lift ordinary households out of energy poverty.

Soon afterwards, Cove was reportedly kidnapped in New York and told to cease work on his invention. His business floundered, and solar panels did not re-emerge as a serious means of producing energy until the 1950s, almost 40 years later. Today, solar panel installations are soaring as people seek to reduce their energy bills.

Using a concept known as Wight’s law - the idea that with every doubling of cumulative capacity, there is a steady decline in production costs due to learning - Dr Srivastav explores the potential impact of Cove’s kidnapping. She finds that solar could have become cheaper than coal as early as 1997 had Cove’s work not been stopped. Dr Srivastav comments:

An earlier transition to renewables would have spared the world huge amounts of carbon emissions, and far fewer deaths from air pollution and other climate related disasters. We cannot say for certain how solar PV’s trajectory would have panned out if George Cove was not kidnapped. But we can say with greater clarity that in 1909 a vision of a solar-powered world was lost, and it is only being revived now, over 100 years later.

Read the full report: Lost potential: how the kidnapping of a solar energy pioneer impacted the cost of renewable energy and the climate crisis