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Solarpunk, for those who are somehow unaware, is a subgenre similar to that of steam/cyberpunk that instead depicts a future running on advanced renewable energy-powered technology. It usually depicts quasi-utopian societies to contrast from the "low-life" and nihilistic themes of cyberpunk and usually features a very bright and green Art-Nouveau aesthetic rather than a smokey and brass Victorian one. The term was coined very recently by this Tumblr post, which goes into more detail describing it. It'd be nice to see this subgenre getting its own tag on this site.

What would need to happen for technology to advance enough for society to be able to primarily rely on advanced renewable-energy by say, the early 1900s? And although solarpunk is characteristically a utopian genre of speculative fiction, the societal issues and conflicts that defined and were prevalent in that time period don't have to have never existed. (World War I could potentially be fought with solar-powered tanks.)

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    $\begingroup$ The easiest way is to start counting the years of the common era from the 1st Council of Nicaea. In this way, the year numbered 1900 will occur about two centuries from now, and by that time it may be the case that society will rely mostly on renewable energy sources. Otherwise, if you want this domination of renewable energy to occur about 100 years ago, the only way to do it is to have a devastating event which would relegate humankind to pre-modern technology -- massive use of fossil fuels started with the modern age. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 20 '18 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ ... Which is to say that the economic and technological base is what determines the social and ideological superstructure. You cannot have an Edwardian society and modern technology at the same time, they don't mix. If you have advanced technology able to use renewable energy sources at scale you cannot have the deeply stratified society of the Belle Époque, for example because this kind of technology requires swarms of knowledge workers and not hordes of manual laborers. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 20 '18 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ Cheaper - easier to make power from solars. In early 1900's nothing could beat oil, coal and wood. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Nov 20 '18 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ ...for those who are somehow unaware...The term was coined very recently -> I would rework your introduction, throwing a backhanded insult at people and then admitting that they most likely can't know the term because it's something utterly new doesn't necessarily animate them to help you out.. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Nov 22 '18 at 6:08
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Believe it or not, the answer is not much. But losing gas is a start.

The real problem is the adoption curve; the time it took between the theories needed being developed and the practical large volume uptake in terms of engineering. That said, let's look at the timeline.

James Clark Maxwell, in 1861 (and subsequent years) published 4 equations that are now known as the Maxwell equations, which fundamentally linked magnetism and electricity. This means that we could now generate electricity by turning an axle, and turn an axle via electricity. Before this, things like radios, toasters, electric vehicles, etc. were impossible, because we didn't have the theory we needed to make these things a possibility.

That said, things moved quickly from there. The first Photovoltaic Cell was built in 1889, but wasn't very efficient. The first electrical appliance (a toaster) was patented in 1909. What this shows is that renewable electricity was being developed before there was a wholesale takeup in domestic electricity usage. So, solarpunk could definitely be a thing.

Ultimately, the best way to make solarpunk a thing in the 1920s onwards is to lose the gas infrastructure in most cities beforehand. What (arguably) really drove electricity adoption was electric light, which was competing against the already established gas light system. Once electricity was in houses for lights, its flexibility and capacity to do so many other things was realised through the development of additional appliances, like the toaster.

If the adoption of electricity was faster, and we didn't have gas or coal to facilitate large scale thermal power generation, photovoltaics could have developed faster as an option to power homes off a grid.

It should be noted that while this is a possible outcome, it's not probable. The investment involved in the power grid was made because it could be commercialised (that is to say people could be charged by a power provider for what they use), whereas photovoltaics don't offer that option. Of course, if electricity adoption was greater in rural areas where it was less viable to install large electricity grids, it's possible this could have become the norm over the grid, centrally generated model.

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The problem is where the revolution started. People use power sources which are readily available. In England there was whale oil and running water. The first steam engines were hideously inefficient and were only practical because they were used to pump water from coal mines.

Any technology starts out inefficient and then improves slowly over time. If you wanted a solar powered society it would have to start in place where sunlight was plentiful and other sources of power weren't available.

When people think of solar power they tend to think of Photo Voltaic cells. A simpler setup is the use of Thermal Solar where the light is concentrated to boil water which is then run through a steam engine of some sort. Modern setups use a high efficiency Stirling engine but anything would work.

A possible path to develop the technology would be development by the Ghana empire in North Africa. Ghana was a empire in the West Sahara between 300 and 700 CE. They made most of their wealth through trading of salt and gold. With ample sunlight rudimentary metal smelting can be done with parabolic mirrors. It is even possible to make glass.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ajzOaauYa4

Solar punk might have been a thing, just not in Northern Europe.

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Steampunk is credible because the massive machines of any science fiction story require massive power, and steam power was readily available due to the availability of coal and oil. Even today industrialized nations like China, India, and the USA cannot ignore the economic benefits of coal power. To harness solar power in the early 20th century no semiconductor solar panels need to be invented. Instead, just build arrays of mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a raised tower of molten salt: https://www.solarreserve.com/en/technology/molten-salt-energy-storage

However, you can't build massive solar arrays on battleships or tanks, so the real technological advancement for a solarpunk novel would be lithium ion batteries. You need a way to store all that energy on combat vehicles. You also need a back story about why coal is not feasible, such as a permanent coal miner's strike or extremely polluted air.

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You really don't need to advance technology much, if at all. What you need is to make fossil fuels either economically or socially disadvantaged.

If you look at the early development of electricity, much of the generation was indeed solar & renewable, in the form of hydroelectric power. Electicity was generated at Niagara Falls starting in 1882, and by 1895 a larger generation plant was powering the city of Buffalo: http://edisontechcenter.org/Niagara.htm Then we have the various large-scale generation schemes of the 1930s, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, Bonneville Dam on the Columbia, &c.

For automotive use, alcohol was widely used in early automobiles. Henry Ford designed his early cars to be able to run on alcohol, as did many other early experimenters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_alcohol_fuel

The problem was (and still is) that oil & coal are often cheaper than the alternatives, and most people are willing to ignore the adverse effects as long as they don't have an obvious immediate impact on themselves.

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As other answers have mentioned the main barrier to renewable energy (and in particular solar energy) is the ease and convenience of fossil fuels.

One way of doing this would be to speed up the realisation that burning fossil fuels would lead to climate change and eventually cause significant damage to the Earth and humanity. Around the same time oil and gas were first being utilised the first theories of climate change and of human effect on climate change were being put forward.
According to wikipedia

a Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, saw that this human emission of carbon would eventually lead to warming. However, because of the relatively low rate of CO2 production in 1896, Arrhenius thought the warming would take thousands of years, and he expected it would be beneficial to humanity.

If this realisation had come earlier, and a more forward thinking estimation of the growth of humanity and their dependency on energy and fossil fuels was used then it could be that coal, oil and gas would be far more heavily regulated right from the start. With fossil fuels no longer a serious option, then wind, water and solar energy become the logical alternatives for mass energy production.

Two problems you would have to overcome would be the storage of solar energy (as mentioned in hyperion4's answer) and the fact that quite a lot of the world isn't actually suitable for large scale solar energy (particularly pre-climate change).

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Augustin Mouchot developed the earliest solar powered steam engines in the 1860's, and exhibited a fairly large and developed engine at the Universal Exhibition, Paris in 1878.

enter image description here

Mouchot engine at the Paris Exhibition in 1878

So in terms of being possible, it was done decades before your projected time line. However, a look at the illustration tells you all you need to know why the engine wasn't adopted in 1878, the 1929's or even today.

To gather enough energy to do useful work requires a large collecting array, either a singular device, or a multiplicity of mirrors, solar panels etc. Solar energy is actually very dilute compared to chemical energy. In addition to being dilute, it is also periodic rather than "on demand", and is irregular as well, you can be defeated by clouds and rain or fog blocking the sun. Moving large mirrors, reflectors or PV panels around is inconvenient at best, and can expose you to danger (large, heavy moving parts), not to mention lots of maintenance to clean and polish surfaces, and even the possibility of losing the collector due to sudden high winds, hailstorms and so on.

In addition, there is still no clear method to store large amounts of energy for night time usage or periods of rain of clouds. This problem was already evident in 1878, and even in the 21rst century AD we still are no closer to cracking the question.

A civilization without large scale usable reserves of chemical energy (coal, wood, hydrocarbons) would then be stuck in a sort of "craft" industry economy. Solar energy would not scale to the extent required for a modern industrial economy, nor would it allow continuous production. Work could only be done essentially on sunny days, and even then a fe clouds could totally throw off production. A large steel smelter could theoretically be built with a giant solar mirror, but what would happen to the bloom if the heat is irregularly applied due to passing clouds? Other thermal processes wold also have these sorts of issues as well.

enter image description here

Solar furnace built at Fond-Romeu-Odeillo-Via in 1969, and still the largest in the world

So "solarpunk" could be a viable way to structure a story or setting, so long as the actual limitations of this sort of technology are acknowledged.

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