Thomas Edison: Champion of Renewable Energy

The father of the electric light saw the value of renewable energy

American inventor Thomas Alva Edison
Vintage Images/Archive Photos/Getty Images

American inventor Thomas Edison often gets a bad rap from environmentalists. After all, he invented those incandescent light bulbs we are all so busy replacing with more efficient models. He developed many industrial chemicals in conditions that would alarm modern environmental cleanup crews. And of course, he is known best for inventing or improving a whole slew of power-thirsty electric machines and appliances—from the phonograph to the motion picture camera. Edison merged his own company to create General Electric, one of the world's largest corporation. By the end of his life, Edison had been awarded more than 1,300 individual patents.

Almost single-handedly, it seems, Edison's work at the end of the 19th century made modern civilization dependent on electricity—and the natural resources required to generate it.

Edison Experimented With Renewable Energy

More than a tireless promoter of electricity, Thomas Edison was also a pioneer in renewable energy and green technology. He experimented with home-based wind turbines to generate electricity that could replenish batteries to provide homeowners with an independent source of power, and he teamed up with his friend Henry Ford to develop an electric car that would run on rechargeable batteries. He saw electric cars as a cleaner alternative for moving people in smoke-filled cities.

Most of all, Edison’s keen mind and insatiable curiosity kept him thinking and experimenting throughout his long life—and renewable energy was one of his favorite topics. He had a deep respect for nature and loathed damage made to it. He was a renowned vegetarian, extending his non-violence values to animals. 

Edison Favored Renewable Energy Over Fossil Fuels

Thomas Edison knew that fossil fuels such as oil and coal were not ideal power sources. He was very aware of the air pollution problems fossil fuels created, and he recognized that those resources were not infinite, shortages would become a problem in the future. He saw the virtually untapped potential of renewable energy sources—such as wind power and solar power—that could be harnessed and put to work for the benefit of mankind.

In 1931, the same year he died, Edison confided his concerns to his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, who by then were retirement neighbors in Florida:

"We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature's inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind, and tide."

"I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Edited by Frederic Beaudry