A Timeline of Solar Power

Man calculating formula

If you ask around, you will find a surprising number of people who think of solar energy as a new technology, as in only invented within the last 10 or 20 years. Modern solar power, however, has been in development for over 70 years, and it is based on a technology that was first discovered in the late 1830s.

Solar energy is a lot more fascinating than it gets credit for. Let’s take a journey through the timeline of solar power.

1839 – Becquerel Discovers the Photovoltaic Effect

Alexander Edmond Becquerel was 19 years old and experimenting in his father’s lab when he placed silver chloride in an acidic solution that was connected to platinum electrodes. Becquerel exposed his experiment to light, and it generated voltage. This was the first indication that light could generate electricity under the right conditions and when applied to the right materials – a concept now known as the photovoltaic effect.

1876 – Selenium is Exposed to Light

The next scientist to make strides toward solar energy was William Grylls Adams. Adams and his student Richard Day were able to observe the photovoltaic effect when illuminating selenium which is a nonmetal element on the periodic table. While the selenium modules they had access to at the time were not very efficient, Adams and Day did successfully prove that light could be converted directly to energy without machinery or a complicated apparatus.

1883 – Charles Edgar Fritts Builds a Working Solar Module

His module was made of copper coated in selenium and gold leaf. It was also, unfortunately, only 1% efficient. The materials used to build the module were also incredibly expensive which prevented it from being used as a practical energy supply.

1887 – The Photoelectric Effect is Discovered

Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist, observed the photoelectric effect when the light was used to free electrons from a solid metal surface to generate power. Hertz realized that this process generated more power when the surface was exposed to UV light as opposed to intense visible light. Albert Einstein joined the fun by further explaining the effect and won a Nobel Prize for his effort.

1913 – William Coblentz Patents the First Solar Cell

William Coblentz’s patent would become another small note in the history of solar power. Unfortunately, his design never worked as science and manufacturing in 1913 were not yet up to the challenge of efficient solar energy.

Over the next 40 years, little to no progress was made in the development of solar technology; scientists were having very little success in making solar cells efficient enough to warrant further research. Additionally, oil had also become even more prominent and was cheaper to produce and easy to find. During this time, solar power became even less attractive as a potential energy source, and most projects failed and stalled.

1953 – The Discovery of the Silicon Solar Cell

Luckily not everyone stopped their solar research. Nearly 40 years after Coblentz’s solar cell, Calvin Fuller was working with fellow scientists Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson when he first diffused boron into silicon and discovered truly efficient solar power (running at 6% efficiency instead of 1%). Fuller, Chapin and Pearson’s solar cell could successfully power a small device. Unfortunately, it was much too expensive to produce on a larger scale.

The reason solar power came back into the spotlight had a lot to do with the space race. Scientists were looking for renewable and reliable ways to power their satellites and solar power seemed just right since it’s constantly available.

1956 – Solar Cells Hit the Market

The first commercial solar power modules were efficient, but they were also incredibly expensive at the time. Individual cells cost $300 apiece, which was the equivalent of nearly $3,000. At the time, NASA was practically the only group that could afford solar technology, and they were able to use it to power satellites.

The first solar-powered satellite, Vanguard 1, has been in orbit over 60 years and has traveled nearly 200,000 miles around the earth. Because it was powered by solar cells, the satellite operated and sent signals back for much longer than people expected. But for the average American consumer solar power was still out of reach.

Early 1970’s – Solar Enters Mainstream

As oil prices rose with peoples dependence on the fuel, the demand for solar power increased. After Exxon Corporation began financing research for solar power, scientists were able to create solar cells made from lower grade silicon which lowered costs from $100 per watt to nearly $20 per watt. At this same time, the Federal Government passed initiatives and bills to help make renewable energy more accessible.

Dr. Elliot Berman is credited with creating what would evolve into the affordable modern solar panel. Many decades later, solar installations in the US have a capacity of over 40 gigawatts combined – enough to power over 6.5 million homes.

1979 – The White House

The White House installed solar panels on the roof in 1979. The main purpose was to heat water for the first family, and eventually the pool area. When they were installed, they were used as mostly a symbolic feature rather than for practicality.

1982 – First Solar Parks are Created

The first solar park was built by Arco Solar, and it was located in California. This park generated 1 megawatt or 1,000 kilowatts per hour. They built a second park later on that was the largest collection of solar panels in the world, with over 100,000 PV arrays and generated 5.2 megawatts.

1994 – Photovoltaic Conversion Progresses

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a solar cell from a new material that exceeded 30% conversion efficiency which was a significant improvement upon the 6% conversion efficiency of the silicon solar cells.

2006 – California Solar Initiative

By 2006 the yearly solar production for California reached nearly 2,000 megawatts, and California made international news after developing the California Solar Initiative. The CSI is the solar rebate program for customers of utility companies including Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric. This initiative is a key component of the Go Solar California Campaign, a campaign dedicated to increasing the use of solar technology throughout California.

Ultimately, rebates and funding programs are what makes solar energy more accessible to the mass public, but they are still a hefty initial investment into your home. While they are expensive, solar panels will eventually help you to cut ties with your electric company since you’ll be producing all of your own energy, which will lower and eventually eliminate your electricity bills.

We encourage you to visit our website or give our office a call so that you can learn more about the many opportunities you’ll have with solar panels. We can also inform you of all of the various rebates and incentives that you qualify for to help lessen the financial burden of solar panels,

Our team at Energy Concepts is here to help you with everything you need to make the switch to solar. We will be with you every step of the way on your journey towards being more energy efficient, from the design to the installation!