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The History of Solar Technology—The Ultimate Guide

By: Eric Huesca, SEO Content Writer

October 18, 2022

The history of solar technology is a long and winding one, full of advances and setbacks, successes and failures. But through it all, the promise of solar power has remained strong. In this ultimate guide to solar technology, we’ll explore the history of solar power from its earliest origins to the cutting-edge technologies of today. So let’s get started!

Solar in the Early Days

The use of solar energy is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for centuries. One of the earliest known examples comes from the 7th century BC, when Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes used a series of mirrors to focus sunlight onto invading ships, setting them on fire.

Solar on a storage garage

Solar installation on storage shed.

The use of solar energy is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around for centuries. One of the earliest known examples comes from the 7th century BC, when Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes used a series of mirrors to focus sunlight onto invading ships, setting them on fire.

Despite these early successes, solar power remained largely undeveloped until the second half of the 20th century. The main reason for this was the high cost of solar cells, which made them impractical for widespread use. This began to change in 1954 when American scientist Gerald Pearson and his colleagues at Bell Labs created the first silicon solar cell.

The invention of the silicon solar cell was a major breakthrough in solar power technology. Suddenly, the cost of generating solar power plummeted, making it a much more viable option for practical applications.

The Birth of the Solar Industry

With the cost of solar cells now dramatically lower, the stage was set for the birth of the solar industry. In 1958, American company Hoffman Electronics released the first commercial solar cell, and in 1960, the first solar-powered calculator hit the market.

Solar power continued to gain traction in the years that followed. In 1962, NASA launched the world’s first satellite powered by solar cells, and in 1979, the United States installed its first grid-connected solar array.

The 1980s and 1990s were a period of great growth for the solar industry. In the 1980s, the cost of solar cells fell even further, making them more affordable than ever before. This led to a boom in the use of solar power for both commercial and residential applications.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, advances in technology allowed for the development of new types of solar cells, including thin-film solar cells. This made solar power even more efficient and cost-effective, further driving its adoption around the world.

The Solar Industry Today

Today, the solar industry is stronger than ever. In 2019, global installed capacity reached almost 600 gigawatts (GW), enough to power over 120 million homes. And this number is only expected to grow in the years to come, as the cost of solar continues to fall and more and more countries commit to transitioning to renewable energy.

What’s more, the technology of solar cells is continuing to evolve, with new advances being made all the time. In the future, we can expect solar cells to become even more efficient, durable, and affordable, making solar power an increasingly attractive option for both homes and businesses.

Looking to the future, it’s clear that solar power is poised to play a major role in the world’s energy mix. With its abundant resources and ever-improving technology, solar is well on its way to becoming a major player in the global energy market.

Edmond Becquerel

The French physicist, Edmond Becquerel, is credited with the discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839. The photovoltaic effect is the basic scientific principle upon which solar cells are based.

Becquerel experimented with an electrolytic cell that was made using two metal electrodes placed in an electrolyte solution. He noticed that when he exposed the cell to light, it produced an electric current.

This was the first time anyone had observed this effect, and it was a major breakthrough in the field of solar energy. Becquerel’s discovery paved the way for the development of solar cells and other photovoltaic technologies.

Charles Fritts

The first solar cells were created in 1883 by American inventor Charles Fritts. Fritts coated selenium wafers with an extremely thin layer of gold and found that when exposed to sunlight, they produced a small amount of electric current.

Fritts’ solar cells were inefficient and expensive, but they were the first to demonstrate that solar power could be converted into electricity. Fritts’ work laid the foundation for the development of more efficient and affordable solar cells in the years that followed.

Gerald Pearson

In 1954, American scientist Gerald Pearson and his colleagues at Bell Labs created the first silicon solar cell. The efficiency of these cells was just 6%, but they were a major improvement over Fritts’ selenium cells.

Solar cells based on silicon would go on to become the most popular type of solar cell in the world, thanks to their high efficiency and low cost. Today, silicon solar cells are used in everything from small handheld devices to large-scale solar farms.

Passive Solar Buildings

Passive solar buildings are buildings that use natural features, such as windows, to passively collect and store energy from the sun. This energy is then used to heat and cool the building, reducing the need for traditional heating and cooling systems.

Passive solar buildings were first developed during World War II, as a way to reduce the amount of energy needed to heat and cool homes and offices. At the time, traditional heating and cooling systems were in short supply, so passive solar buildings were seen as a way to reduce dependence on these systems.

In 1947, architect and engineer Edward Mazria designed the first passive solar building in the United States, the Solar House in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mazria’s design used south-facing windows to passively collect solar energy, which was then used to heat and cool the home.

Since then, passive solar buildings have become increasingly popular, as they offer a more efficient and environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional heating and cooling systems.

Furthermore, passive solar buildings can help to reduce energy costs and improve the comfort of occupants. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in passive solar buildings, as more and more people are looking for ways to save energy and reduce their carbon footprints.

Photovoltaic Technology is Born

In 1954, Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chapin, and Gerald Pearson came up with the silicon photovoltaic cell—the first solar cell had the ability to convert enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electrical equipment. This was a significant breakthrough in the history of new technology in solar panels.

The group was working at Bell Labs, and they were trying to find a way to create a silicon device that could convert sunlight into electrical energy. They succeeded in creating a solar cell that was about 6% efficient. This may not sound like much, but it was a major breakthrough at the time.

The silicon PV cell was the first step in the development of solar cell technology as we know it today. It paved the way for more efficient solar cells and eventually led to the development of solar panels and solar power plants.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory

In 1977, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) created the Solar Energy Research Institute, which was renamed the (NREL) National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 1991. NREL is the nation’s laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development (R&D).

NREL has played a pivotal role in advancing solar green technology, conducting pioneering research on photovoltaics (PV), grid integration of solar power, and concentrating solar power (CSP). Some notable accomplishments include developing the world’s highest-efficiency crystalline silicon PV cell, discovering ways to lower the costs of CSP plants, and developing new approaches for tracking the sun.

NREL’s research has helped bring solar power from a niche market to a mainstream source of electricity. In the early days of solar PV research, NREL scientists and engineers made significant advances in improving the efficiency of solar cells and developing new manufacturing processes. These innovations led to a tenfold decrease in the cost of solar PV modules between 1977 and 1997.

Today, NREL’s R&D is focused on improving the efficiency and performance of solar technologies while also working to lower costs. The lab’s work is helping to make solar power a more cost-competitive option for utilities and businesses across the United States.

NREL is a leader in PV research, with a long history of accomplishments in the field. In the early 1980s, NREL scientists and engineers developed a new process for making solar cells that increased their efficiency by more than 50%. This breakthrough helped spur the commercialization of PV products and laid the groundwork for today’s high-efficiency solar cells.

In 1992, NREL developed the world’s highest-efficiency crystalline silicon PV cell, which achieved an efficiency of 28.4%. This record-setting cell was made possible by advances in NREL’s silicon wafer processing technology.

NREL has also been a pioneer in CSP research, developing new ways to lower the costs of these plants while also improving their performance. In the early 2000s, NREL developed a new type of CSP plant that used parabolic troughs to collect solar energy. This innovation helped reduce the costs of CSP plants by more than 50%.

More recently, NREL has been working on new approaches for tracking the sun. In 2013, the lab developed a new way to increase the accuracy of tracking systems, which could lead to higher efficiency and lower costs for CSP plants.

The Solar Tax Credits

In 2006, the United States Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which included a 30% federal tax credit for solar PV and CSP systems. This tax credit was later extended to cover fuel cells, small wind turbines, and geothermal heat pumps.

The solar tax credit has been a major driver of solar adoption in the United States. It has helped to lower the costs of solar PV and CSP systems, making them more affordable for consumers and businesses.

The tax credit has also helped to create jobs in the solar industry. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the solar industry employs over 242,000 people in the United States. The majority of these jobs are in the installation and maintenance of solar PV systems.

The SEIA estimates that the solar industry will create over 1 million jobs in the United States by 2030.

The Future of Solar Power— Final Thoughts

Solar power is a clean, renewable source of energy that has many benefits over traditional fossil fuels. Solar technologies are becoming more efficient and less expensive, making them a more viable option for utilities and businesses.

The history of new solar technology is one that is filled with innovation and progress. From the early days of using the sun’s energy to heat homes and cook food, to today’s sophisticated solar panels that are used to generate electricity, solar power has come a long way.

Despite its many benefits, solar power still faces some challenges. For example, solar panels can be expensive to install, and they require a lot of maintenance. Additionally, solar power is not always reliable, as the sun doesn’t always shine.

Despite these challenges, solar power is still a promising technology with a bright future. With continued research and development, it is likely that solar power will become more affordable and more reliable, making it an increasingly popular option for powering businesses and homes.

What do you think about solar power? Do you think it has a bright future? Let us know in the comments below!

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