A Brief History of Solar Power – Yesterday and Today

With so much talk about renewable energy, many people believe that solar power is the way of the future. However, despite the fact that solar is widely accepted as a means for cleaner energy, how much do we know about it? To better understand how it will shape our future, we should first look at how it’s been developed in the past. Consider a brief history of solar power to see how far we’ve come.

Photovoltaic Cells

history of solar powerTechnically speaking, solar power has been around as long as the sun. But for our purposes, we are going to look at the core component of this kind of energy. Photovoltaic (PV) cells are what turn solar light waves into electricity. And they are what we rely on to power our various devices and homes.

In the 19th century, a scientist named Willoughby Smith discovered that the element selenium had the potential to conduct electricity when exposed to sunlight. In 1876, William Adams and Richard Day confirmed Smith’s theory. A few years later, selenium wafers that could conduct electricity were built by scientist Charles Fritts.

In 1954, the first “modern PV cells were invented by a trio of scientists. Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson used silicone to create the same effect as selenium, which is what we use today. At the time, the first cells could produce energy with 4% efficiency. Currently, we can do it at about 35%.

Solar Energy Uses

The first significant use of PV cells was in spacecraft that could harness the power of the sun without concerns about clouds or environmental damage. In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite was equipped with a small solar panel.

The first house to use solar power was built by the University of Delaware in 1973. Instead of adding panels to the roof, it was constructed with built-in panels.

In 1981, the first solar plane took off, crossing the English Channel. This record was broken a couple of times until 2016 when Bertrand Piccard flew around the world in a solar-powered aircraft. It was the first time it had been done, but hopefully, won’t be the last.

Cost of Solar Over Time

When they were first invented, PV cells could cost as much as $300 per watt of energy produced. By the 1970’s, the price had gone down to about $100 a watt. Thankfully, these days it costs as little as  $4.00 per watt. Today, it’s much more affordable for both consumers and businesses.

The industry has only been able to achieve 34.5% efficiency (as recently as last year). So there is still enormous potential for developing better cells that can transfer and possibly store solar energy for long-term usage.

As the industry continues to develop this remarkable technology, we will eventually get to a point where solar power can replace traditional fuel methods, ushering in a brighter, cleaner future.

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