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How WW1 Killed a Dream of a Solar-Powered World

The world is marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. This was not only the bloodiest war the world has ever seen but it saw the start of the West's involvement in carving up the Middle East and interfering in its politics for the sake of oil. We are still mired in the bloody consequences of this.

WW1 also marked the end of the world's first solar power station, which was operating only for one year, in Egypt, before the outbreak of hostilities caused it to be abandoned.

As I explain in my book Solar Technology,  a Swedish-American inventor and mechanical engineer, John Ericsson, working for the British and Americans, pursued pioneering solar work in Egypt, a British colony then, where the first parabolic trough – and the first utility scale solar technology – was developed as long ago as 1883.

The first parabolic trough and the first utility scale solar technology in 1883.

John Ericsson's design focused sunlight from a curved silvered window glass surface (called a heliostat) onto an 11-foot long iron tube central receiver to generate steam to mechanically drive a Stirling engine. The heliostat was 16 feet wide and 11 feet tall, and tracked the sun across a north–south axis. It had a maximum output of 3 horsepower (2.24kW) and was able to pump 500 gallons (2,273 litres) of water per minute.

Inspired by this, American engineer and inventor Frank Shuman commissioned the first large-scale solar power generator in Maadi, near Cairo, in 1913. Schuman dreamt of a completely solar powered world. It was theoretically possible then, as indeed it is now.

With a solar collector area of 1240m2, his array powered a pump that irrigated elevated farmland with water from the River Nile.

Worlds first solar power plant in Cairo 1913

The world's first solar power plant in Cairo 1913.

This consisted of five rows of parabolic mirrors with a total output of 88kW. This power station was more cost-effective than a similarly sized coal-based plant would have been at the time, and would have recouped its investment in four years. However, despite its success, it was only used for one year, as the First World War intervened and the Turks battled the British for control of the nearby Suez Canal.

WW1 and oil

WW1 and oil map

The location of the oil fields in 1914.

This war began the worldwide predominance of oil as an energy source, as one of its causes was competition for control of the Middle Eastern oilfields. By the end of the war, British forces had secured the entire oilfields of Mesopotamia in a new League Protectorate called Iraq. This put a provisional end to any attempts of pursuing the development of solar energy on a large scale.

The British feared that the Ottomans might attack and capture the Middle East (and later Caspian) oil fields. Their Royal Navy depended upon oil from the petroleum deposits in southern Persia, which the British-controlled Anglo-Persian Oil Company owned the exclusive rights to exploit throughout the Persian Empire except in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Ghilan, Mazendaran, Asdrabad and Khorasan. To secure the oil, the British even worked with Russian Communist troops to prevent the Turkish leader Enver Pasha's goal of establishing an independent Transcaucasia.

Oil was already the lifeblood of the British Empire as the British Navy had converted from coal to oil a few years previously. British and French trucks and aircraft also ran on oil.

On November 6 1914, the day after war was declared on the Ottoman Empire, the British landed ships at Abadan, on the shores of Iraq, with a mission to protect the oilfields and make sure production was not affected. Both the French and the British had invested much money in developing these oil fields.

In March 1915 General Townsend took 30,000 troops up the Tigris to attack the Turkish army and protect the oilfields. He succeeded and continued to march onwards with the intention of attacking and capturing Baghdad. By November, 25 miles away, they battled the 25,000 Turkish army for four days. They lost, and retreated to the coast where they were beseiged for five months before 13,000 troops surrendered.

But the British hatched another plan. They captured Baghdad eventually, on March 11 1917, having marched across Palestine from the Suez Canal. The French and British sealed an agreement to share the oil and protect the oil line from Basra.

After the war, agreements were made, mostly between between France and Britain, which resulted in the carving of the old Ottoman Empire into artificial nations - Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Syria.

The struggle is documented in the film "Blood and Oil - The Middle East in World War I" (below), which examines how this conflict laid the foundation for all the wars, coups, revolts and military interventions in the Middle East ever since, all ultimately on the need for oil.



Oil also figured in a major conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire at the strategic port of Batumi on the Black Sea and Baku on the Caspian Sea, with the arrival of German Caucasus Expedition. This was established in the formerly Russian Transcaucasia around early 1918 during the Caucasus Campaign. Its prime aim was to secure oil supplies for Germany and stabilize a nascent pro-German Democratic Republic of Georgia.

The century of conflict over oil

Oil was the black gold that motivated, and still motivates the West to constantly interfere in the Middle East, without taking into account its widely diverse population, without seeking to understand the complexity of its many cultures and ethnic composition. This is well told in William Engdahl's book `A Century of War'.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab population was betrayed by the British who were their allies at the time. The British and French agreed a secret treaty to partition the Middle East between them and the British promised via the Balfour Declaration to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

It not until 1947 that the UK withdrew its forces from Iraq.

Solar pioneer Augustin MouchotAs long ago as the 1870s, visionary solar pioneers such as Augustin Mouchot (right) foresaw the time when the coal would run out and began to develop alternatives that could deliver the same benefits from solar power.

Mouchot, demonstrating a solar powered device that made ice at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878, said:

"Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion... Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?"

It is a great tragedy that the Earth's crust contains so much fossil fuel; not just because of global warming, but because of the millions upon millions of lives that have been lost in the wars that have been fought over access to oil in the last 100 years.

Mouchot demonstrating his solar powered printing press in the 1870s

On 6 August 1882 this printing press produced copies of Le Chaleur Solaire (Solar Heat) by Augustin Mouchot, a newspaper that he created in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris, for the festival of L'Union Francaises de la Jeuenesse. It printed 500 copies an hour, using solar thermal technology.

The competition between nation states for access to these resources has time and again over the last century brought violent conflict, suffering, widespread destruction and loss of life. The presence of oil, coal and gas in a territory has been a curse as much as a blessing.

Nowadays, the phrase 'energy security' is being used by those who want to see local, sustainable sources of clean energy replace dirty fossil fuels. This is because the sun, wind and other renewable sources of energy are available abundantly, everywhere on the planet, with no need for conflict over their use.

Looking at the history of solar power it is clearly obvious that its development has suffered as a result of the abundance of fossil fuels. The world's economy is currently predicated upon their use. Despite all the scientific evidence of the imminence of catastrophic climate change as a result of our continued use of these fuels, the companies and economies which rely on them are as enthusiastic as ever to exploit them.

Humanity – or its leaders – are now faced with a clear choice: whether to stick with the status quo and vested interests that aggressively promote as inevitable a continued dependence on fossil fuels; or whether to accelerate the deployment, research and development into solar and other renewable, sustainable technologies and practices.

The potential of these technologies is completely clear and proven. The scientific case for the likelihood with business-as-usual of a runaway greenhouse effect, has been conclusively established. The stakes could not be higher and the choice more stark.