12 Min Read
November 30, 2023
Frédéric Caille, Associate Professor, University Savoie Mont Blanc, specializes in the social history of solar and renewable energies. His research covers renewable energy narratives, solar energy history, and materials. He authored the first biography of Augustin Mouchot (1825-1912), a pioneer in modern solar energy, and explores museography and renewable energy traces in West Africa.
Why should we care about the history of solar energy? In order to build better solarities, do we really need to know about past successes and failures in harnessing free solar rays? Is it true, as the After Oil Collective claims, that “the stories we tell of solar pasts, presents, and futures are crucial means of unsettling received knowledge, reviving forgotten and occluded histories, and building future worlds”?1 Does an anthropology of solar ruins in Africa and in the countries of the South, accompanied by a critical deconstruction of official state-energy history (in this case, French), genuinely contribute to our future? The SOFRETES’s survey and efforts to present it to a wider audience provide an affirmative response to these questions.
SOFRETES (Société Française d'Etudes Thermiques et d'Energie Solaire/French Society for Thermal Studies and Solar Energy), founded in 1973 in Montargis, France, aimed to use solar energy to pump water from the sub-Saharan soil to improve the life of nearby villagers. This founding came twenty years (1950) after the exploration, testing, and application of various forms of renewable energy, such “the energy at the end of the world” (tide, wave, and wind energy) began in the northern Scottish Islands, described by Laura Watts, and thirty years before the beginning of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) wave energy test site (2004). Much like these experiments, especially tide and wave electrical power, SOFRETES and its “Solar-T" technology (Thermal and Thermodynamic Solar energy) should have stayed in the limbo of unfinished energy dreams.
Like many projects developed over the past century, that of the company's creator should have remained a laboratory vision—a demonstration of his doctoral thesis in physics conducted in Dakar in 1963. But a miracle, a strange twist of fate in the form of a solar eclipse attracted many journalists to the desert, where they encountered one of the company's first modern solar pumps, constructed in 1974 in the Mauritanian town of Chinguetti. Shortly thereafter, the Mexican Government bought forty similar village pumps to establish throughout the country.
The history of small thermodynamic solar energy is an empty corridor in the history of energy technology and development. You can try to open encyclopedias, stories of power and energy resources, and you can go to museums, like the famous Parisian Museum of Arts and Crafts (Musée des Arts et Métiers), but you’ll find very little or no trace of this history. In Paris, you’ll find the whole story of heat engines, De Dion Bouton’s motors, and even Lavoisier’s strange thermal vehicle. But windmills and wind turbines, tidal power plants, low power and low technology renewable energy like Solar-T, and, of course, marine energy from waves as described in Laura Watts’ Energy at the End of the World, are relegated to the margins, if they are discussed at all.2 To understand this situation, it helps to think about energy in a “Foucauldian way,” combining energy, power, and politics into “energopolitics.”3
Taking water from the ground for free, with only the power of the sun, and with a small, easily repaired two-piston engine was a dream come true for SOFRETES; a dream to help ordinary people, a low-tech dream that would find itself swallowed and digested by the geopolitical objectives of big states. This small experimental solar pump placed on the "mosque-school" of Chinguetti, which appeared in the desert during the first major 70s oil crisis, suddenly became an industrial product and alternative for an developing and sunny country like Mexico. This was not planned. Nobody in the French industry ministry even imagined it could or should work. Very few scientists in the world believed in small solar temperatures. As anthropologist Laura Nader noted in 1980, physicists and engineers generally preferred large-scale, high-temperature technologies, much like the “strong males” of their time.4 In France, it is significant that the main solar research service is located in the Center for Atomic Energy (CEA), which sent two of its engineers to Jean-Pierre Girardier, the founder of SOFRETES, to help fill Mexico's order for solar pumps. It may also be significant that by 1983, the CEA bought back all the company's shares and ceased its activities. Among other explanations, the most likely reason why SOFRETES solar pumps are not in books or museums, despite their remarkable achievements, which include twice setting the record for the most powerful solar power plant in the world (1974 and 1981), and constructing more than fifty, 1 kw solar pumps throughout West Africa, Europe, Mexico, Middle East. As a 1980 report for the United States Congress would later state, the company had become the most efficient in the world in the field of solar hydropumping.
SOFRETES is a piece of “the archeology of an energy future that was abandoned,” a trace of the “alternative energies paths,” or of the “road not taken” that Amory B. Lovins once talked about.5
By spending a lot of time recovering old material remains, gathering testimonies, compiling films and photographs–including more than 25 individual audiovisual interviews in France and Africa–visiting seven former installation sites in Africa and three in France, organizing two international university meetings in Senegal, and rehabilitating and protecting a solar motor-pump, we are not working on the past. We are examining a piece of history that makes us reflect on the interactions between Europe and Africa, questioning our knowledge and clichés about energies in southern countries, and reconsidering how our museums and historians narrate the history of energies. In other words, we work for the future.
We are examining a piece of history that makes us reflect on the interactions between Europe and Africa, questioning our knowledge and clichés about energies in southern countries, and reconsidering how our museums and historians narrate the history of energies. In other words, we work for the future.
When you visit Paris, you’ll see the model of a SOFRETES water pump, on loan from the Pheso Association (Promotion and History of Solar Energy) at the Musée des Arts et Métier–the result of an academic and collaborative project in 2018. It is not a professional model; instead, it’s a scaled-down version, constructed in part by Marc Jacquet-Pierroulet, who, at 23 years old, worked on solar motors with Professor Abdou Moumouni Dioffo in Niger and later with SOFRETES, in Senegal, Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Mexico.6 This model, like the first solar motors, is a blend of professional solutions (two professionals helped us), improvisations, and innovations collectively discussed and invented. We were like Jean-Pierre Girardier (1934-2017) in the 1970s: compelled to reach our objective and to realize our project despite the lack of money. Creating an authentic museum-quality model today costs well in excess of €30,000 today. The same collective effort and collaboration was necessary in locating an authentic SOFRETES solar engine, despite the CEA informing us that none still existed.
Ethnographer Laura Watts’s research on renewable energy in the Orkneys explores similar themes: how many traces of the first renewable energy devices, including the first large wind turbine in the UK, have completely disappeared. This is why, despite all the difficulties, we have worked so hard to find a SOFRETES solar motor, forgotten in an old workshop in France (now occupied by another factory) and, with the help of a former SOFRETES employee, recovered it and brought it back to Marc's home. There, we plan to rehabilitate it and digitize it, with the hope of one day being able to display it.
This project was not merely an obsession of enthusiasts or collectors, akin to collectors of old clocks or vintage cars. Each of us, the former witnesses of SOFRETES and myself as a researcher, have passions, such as Marc's commitment to maintaining his forests in the Jura, or Djelal's endeavour to rebuild his grandparents' house in Albania. It’s a commitment rooted in history, the future of our children, and a shared desire for truth. For Marc, Djelal, and a dozen others who have been linked with SOFRETES as workers, engineers, and architects, this is a “work of memory” in the literal sense is (first of all, a bit of revenge on a feeling of “waste,” on “a missed opportunity,” as they have often told me). But it is also, much like my own motivation, driven by a desire to instigate change and improvement in terms of energy. They are not activists, but they have learned, in their own bodies and lives (and through the closure and total oblivion for almost 30 years of SOFRETES) that we do not inhabit a world of total transparency. Or, rather than transparency, knowledge, understanding, truth, and even the ability to be able to dream of something else, there is always something that must be constructed and conquered, particularly in a field as strategic as energy.
That's why today, in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, in front of the nuclear power station and the thermal power station, you’ll find a miniature model of a woman running with a basin for washing vegetables and watering animals–the basin half empty. Nearby, there’s a small tree near a building air-conditioned by the sun–since under the collectors, where the water circulates, it’s cool.
You must go quickly to see this solar village station mockup, as the model has recently been displayed at the museum despite its initial reluctance to acquire it. There's a concern that the SOFRETES solar engine might face removal and once again be lost. Nonetheless, thanks to collective efforts over these past years, as well as the publications already released, and to those to come—like Alexandre Mouthon's thesis about the long quest for “waste heat recovery” and the use of small temperature gradients, with solar heat being one form—we now know there is indeed a designated place reserved for SOFRETES in the museum of the future.7 Maybe even one day, the museum will acknowledge the “Diré power station,” the largest solar power plant ever built in the early 1980s, which no one ever talks about, in the heart of Mali, where life remains rare and precious, but is still deprived of energy until today.8
Our model and the solar motor are much more than museum objects: they are “cosmograms.” That is to say, they are objects which propose a reunification of the world, or more exactly a re-description of the world as it could be, by evoking many relations which they “contain,” but which far exceed them in space and time.9 The solar motor as a “cosmogram” is a mixture of relations: relations of those who worked on it, engineers and workers, Africans who participated or observed, technocrats who had the company suppressed, environmentalists who already believed in solar energy in 1978, simple observers 50 years later like us, observers of tomorrow who will know the world of the unleashed and devastating fossil fuels, and even, maybe, the first solar pioneer of modern times, Augustin Mouchot (1825-1912), who used exactly the same technology as SOFRETES.10
The “energy cosmogram” conceptualization shows that this is more than a question of solar pumping and to have, or not to have, an evocation of the SOFRETES and its achievements in a museum of technical history. Laura Watts mentions in her book the project in the Orkney Islands of a “marine energy museum.”11 For the small thermodynamic solar energy, it is important to hope that the materials that still exist in Senegal, in Niger, and maybe in many other places, will be preserved and used to raise awareness of the great possibilities offered by the sun.12 This is not an insurmountable challenge. This is only working for our future.
A earlier version of the paper was presented at Energy Ethics 2021: Energy Transitions & Planetary Futures (University of St Andrews, Oct. 2021). The presentation is available on YouTube.
1. After Oil Collective, Solarities: Seeking Energy Justice (University of Minnesota Press, 2022), 61.
2. Laura Watts, Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga (MIT Press, 2018).
3. Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman, Energy Humanities: An Anthology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
4. Laura Nader, The Energy Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
5. Watts, Energy at the End of the World, 105; Amory B. Lovins, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” Foreign Affairs 55 (Oct. 1976).
6. Abdou Moumouni Dioffo (1929-1991): The Nigerian Precursor of Solar Energy (Éditions Science et bien commun, 2018) features a collection of beautiful photographs, available for free access at Édition Science et Bien Commun.
7. Alexandre Mouthon, A la recherche de la chaleur perdue. Le moteur solaire de la Société Française d’Etudes Thermiques et d’Energie Solaire (SOFRETES) et l’Etat français (années 1960-1980) [In Search of Lost Heat: The Solar Engine of the French Society for Thermal Studies and Solar Energy (SOFRETES) and the French State (1960s-1980s)], (Ph.D. diss., Lumière University Lyon 2, 2023).
8. Mouthon, “La centrale de pompage thermo-solaire de Diré au Mali (années 1970-1980). Éléments pour une évaluation sociotechnique [The Thermo-Solar Pumping Station in Diré, Mali (1970s-1980s): Elements for a Sociotechnical Evaluation], Cahiers d’histoire du Cnam, no. 13, (2020): 57-90.
9. John Tresch, “Technological World-Pictures: Cosmic Things and Cosmograms”, Isis 98, no. 1 (2007).
10. Frédéric Caille, La naissance de l’énergie solaire. La véritable histoire d’Augustin Mouchot [The Birth of Solar Energy: The True Story of Augustin Mouchot] (Librinova, 2023).
11. Watts, Energy at the End of the World, 145.
12. For more details (free access): "Solar energy: socio-technical trajectories and museographic objects," Cahiers d’histoire du Cnam 13, no. 1, (2020).