One of the benefits of living in the Nation’s capital is direct access to so many great museums. From outdoor works of art at the Sculpture Garden to live butterflies at the National History museum—there’s something out there to spark your interest and feed your curiosity.

Photo of geothermal power plant, taken in 1904.

First geothermal power plant, 1904, Lardarello Italy.

My personal favorite is the National Gallery of Art—there you can take free guided tours almost any day of the week. On a recent tour, a guide explained the significance and history of Ginevra de’ Benci—the only portrait by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere.

I learned that da Vinci—one of the most recognizable names in the world of art—was quite the Renaissance man. He was highly-skilled in an almost unimaginable variety of disciplines—including civil engineering, architecture, and even renewable energy. Yes, that’s right, an inventor as well as a painter—da Vinci’s sketches reveal an early concept for concentrated solar power (CSP):

“da Vinci drew designs for a large, curved mirror. The plan was for the mirror to concentrate the sun’s rays on to a boiler and heat water for dyeing cloth.” - Solar Power (Energy Sources) by Neil Morris

In the early 15th century, da Vinci had correctly hit on the essential concept behind CSP technology—using mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect the solar energy and convert it to heat.

It’s interesting; we often associate renewable energy as future, forward-thinking technology. However, just as in the case of da Vinci’s curved mirror – many of these technologies are based on centuries old concepts and inventions. Not convinced? Consider this—wind energy propelled boats along the Nile River as early as 5000 B.C.

And what about geothermal technology? Archaeological evidence shows that the first human use of geothermal resources in North America occurred more than 10,000 years ago. The first geothermal power plant was completed in Italy, over one hundred years ago, in 1904.

Much work remains to make renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, an affordable, viable option for more people. But learning more about the historical context of these “next-generation” technologies, their early uses in people’s lives long ago, is a worthwhile pursuit.

To all you the history buffs out there, if you know of any fun historical facts about the renewable energy technologies we use today, please share in the comments below.

Erin Pierce leads the New Media effort for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.