Understanding the history of solar energy (1839 - 2021)

The history of solar energy goes way back, after all, the sun is about 4,603 billion years old!

Without the sun, planet earth would be a sphere of ice with absolutely no chance of life.

Solar energy has been a prominent part of our planets history much before solar panels were invented.

Mankind has been harnessing it in various ways throughout history, but so have animals and plants, through photosynthesis for example. 

This article aims to talk about the history of solar energy, or rather the photovoltaic effect, and how it led to the mass production of solar panels. 

What is the sun?

history of solar energy

The sun measures approximately 696,340 km in radius and has a mass of 1.9891x1030 kg = 4.384x1030 lb = 2.192x1027 tons, or a mass 333,000 times that of the planet Earth.

It is incredibly big!

It's surface temperature is 5,778 K. It is able to reach this temperature through nuclear fusion reactions in its core.

These reactions radiate energy, which mainly takes the form as visible light, ultraviolet light, and infrared radiation.

About three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen (~73%). The rest is made up of mostly helium (~25%), with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, such as oxygencarbonneon and iron.

The Sun’s core fuses approximately 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium every single second. This means about 4 million tons of matter is converted into energy every second.

The energy released, can take between 10,000 and 170,000 years to escape the Sun’s core. This is the source of the Sun’s light and heat that you and I feel today.

When the hydrogen fusion in the Sun’s core has lessened to the point at which it’s no longer in a state hydrostatic equilibrium, the core will increase in density and in temperature. While this happens its outer layers will begin to expand, thus transforming itself into a red giant

Scientists have calculated that the Sun will eventually become large enough to engulf the current orbits of Mercury and Venus. Obviously by the time this happens, Earth will no longer exist.

However, do not be alarmed just yet, as this is set to only happen in the next 5 billion years.

After this has happened, it will shed its outer layers, becoming a dense cooling star known as a white dwarf. At this point it will no longer produce energy via fusion but will still glow and give off heat from its previous amounts of fusion.

History of solar energy 

Now that we understand what the sun is, and how it creates its energy, we can perhaps better understand how we were able to harness this energy in the first place. 

history of solar energy

Photovoltaic effect (1839)

In the year 1893, the photovoltaic effect is discovered by a then 19 year old French physicist named Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel.

He did so by while experimenting with metal electrodes and electrolyte. During these experiments Alexandre discovered that conductance increases with illumination.

He also realized that there was pretty much no difference in the amount of current under luminous or dark conditions.

It was at this time he discovered the absolute basics of the photovoltaic effect. However, it was not until much later that actual implementation would take place.

Solar powered steam engines (1860’s)

During the 1860’s, French mathematician August Mouchet came up with the idea for steam engines to be powered by solar energy.

In the following decades to come, he and his assistant Abel Pifre, created the very first solar powered steam engines. In fact, it was this type of invention that became the predecessors of modern parabolic dish collectors.

Solid material can change light into electricity (1876)

In 1876, Richard Evans Day and William Grylls Adams first discover that selenium creates electricity when put in front of light.

However, selenium solar cells did not make the cut and failed to convert enough sunlight into electricity, therefore electrical devices could not be powered through this method. 

With that being said the two men did indeed figure out that solid material has the capability to change light into electricity without heat or moving parts.

Einstein publishes his paper on the photoelectric effect (1905)

Professor Albert Einstein publishes his paper on the photoelectric effect, along with his theory of relativity. 

It was this publication that sparked the drive in many scientists to come. 

Proof of the photoelectric effect (1916) 

Robert Millikan provides actual experimental proof that the photoelectric effect works. 

Single crystal silicon (1918) 

A Polish scientist named Jan Czochralski developed a way to grow single-crystal silicon. There is some more information on Czochralski in this article named: Professor Jan Czolchralski (1885-1953) and His Contribution to the Art and Science of Crystal Growth.

Passive solar buildings (1947) 

The prolonged W.W.II caused the demand for passive solar buildings in the United States to soar in popularity. This was because of the scarce energy around (due to W.W.II). 

Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company decided to publish a book named: Your Solar House, which in the end, profiled forty-nine of the nation’s greatest solar architects.

Photovoltaic technology is born (1954)

In 1954 Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson finally develop the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs.

This was the first silicon solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electrical equipment.

At first the companies silicon solar cells had an efficiency of 4%, however later they were able to bump that efficiency up to 11%.

Proposal for Earth orbiting satellites (1956)

In 1956, William Cherry, U.S. Signal Corps Laboratories, approaches RCA Labs’ Paul Rappaport and Joseph Loferski and asks them about the possibilities of developing photovoltaic cells for orbiting Earth satellites.

N on P silicon solar cells (1958)

T. Mandelkorn from the U.S. Signal Corps Laboratories, is able to fabricate n-on-p silicon photovoltaic cells (this becomes very important for space cells; as they are more resistant to radiation).

Vanguard 1 Space satellite (1958)

The Vanguard I space satellite used a very small (less than one watt) solar array to power its onboard radios.

Later that year, Explorer III, Vanguard II, and Sputnik-3 were launched with PV-powered systems on board.

Despite many failed attempts to commercialize the silicon solar cell in the 1950s and 60s, it was used successfully in powering satellites. It became the accepted energy source for space applications and remains so today.

Solar cell price decrease (1970's)

Dr. Elliot Berman, with the help from Exxon Corporation, designs a significantly less costly solar cell, bringing the price down from $100 a watt to $20 a watt, a significant price reduction!

Solar cells begin to power navigation warning lights and horns on many offshore gas and oil rigs, lighthouses, railroad crossings and domestic solar applications began to be viewed as sensible applications in remote locations where grid connected utilities could not exist affordably.

Solar One (1973)

The University of Delaware builds what’s known as Solar One, one of the world first PV powered residences.

The system entails a PV/thermal hybrid.

It by having the roof-integrated solar arrays feed surplus power through a special meter to the utility during the day and purchased power from the utility at night.

Additionally, the actual arrays acted as flat-plate thermal collectors, with fans blowing the warm air over the array to phase-change heat storage bins.

NREL is born (1977)

In 1977, the U.S. Department of Energy launches the Solar Energy Research Institute (National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Volkswagen (1982)

The German company Volkswagen begins testing solar panels ontop of the Dasher station wagons roofs. These systems could generate 160 watts for the ignition system.

World's largest solar thermal facility commissioned (1986)

In 1986, the world’s largest solar thermal facility, which was located in Kramer Junction, California was commissioned.

The facility consisted of fields of contained rows of mirrors that concentrated the sun’s energy onto a system of pipes circulating a heat transfer fluid.

This generated heat transfer fluid which was then used to produce steam. This steam powered a conventional turbine to generate electricity.

NREL develops a new solar cell (1994)

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory develops a new solar cell made from the materials gallium indium phosphide and gallium arsenide.

This solar cell becomes the first one to exceed the 30% conversion efficiency.

Solar II (1996)

The U.S Department of Energy, begins taking control of Solar Two, which is an upgrade of its Solar One concentrating solar power tower project.

Solar II was operated 1999. In this time, it showed how solar energy can be stored efficiently and economically so that power can be produced even when there was no active sun shining. 

Solar II also created interest in commercial power towers.

A more efficient solar cell is developed (1999)

Spectrolab in partnership with the NREL created a photovoltaic solar cell that converts 32.3 percent of the sunlight that hits it into electricity.

This high conversion rating was achieved by combining three layers of photovoltaic materials into a single solar cell.

In order to use these highly efficient solar cells one needs to have them mounted in a device that uses lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto the cell.

These “concentrator” systems are mounted on a track system which keeps them pointed toward the sun.

Solar electric canopies on gas stations (2002)

British Petroleum (BP) and BP Solar announce that they will be opening a service station in Indianapolis that features a solar-electric canopy.

The Indianapolis station is the first U.S. “BP Connect” store, a model that BP intends to use for all new or significantly revamped BP service stations.

The canopy features translucent PV modules made of thin film silicon deposited onto glass.

Solar today (2021)

China continues to remain the worlds largest PV market with the majority of solar panels being produced out of cities like Shenzhen and Hong Kong. 

Expansion will also continue in the United States with ongoing policy support at the federal and state level.

India's PV market experienced a significant decline in new solar PV capacity additions in 2020 as a result of Covid-related delays. However, the country is expected to recover rapidly in 2021. 

Finally, globally, the solar PV electricity generation is expected to increase by 145 TWh, almost 18%, to approach 1 000 TWh in 2021.

Final thoughts

Around the early 2000's solar technology has taken off to become a national phenomenon. 

Residential homes all around the world are switching to renewables by installing the latest PV technology on the market. 

Not long ago, the U.S installed its millionth solar installation. 

It took the country 50 years to accomplish this feat. However, it is expected that the amount of solar installations installed will double in juts two years.

All over the world new financing options become available for larger residential installations, solar panels themselves are becoming cheaper and the quality getting better every year. 

If you are interested in figuring out how much solar energy your home may need, check out this article

We hope you enjoyed this brief history of solar energy, if you would like to make the switch yourself, get in touch with us. 

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