With the increased access to solar power, more and more people are using the sun’s energy to power aspects of their everyday lives. But, how was solar power invented? It’s fascinating to learn about the origins of something considered so commonplace today, like harnessing energy from the sun. Who did this? When did they do this? In this post, we’ll take you through a brief history of solar power and how it became the powerful renewable energy source you know, today.
The beginning of solar power use is very different from what it is today. Humans first used sunlight to light fires with a magnifying glass in the 7th century B.C. The Greeks and Romans discovered documentation of this in 3rd century B.C., but the first documentation in the East was in 20 A.D. This tool became known as “burning mirrors.” Although it might not have been in your history textbooks, the story of Greek inventor Archimedes using burning mirrors to set fire to invading Roman ships in 212 B.C. is famous for its engineering marvel. Despite contention over whether this event happened on this scale, burning mirrors were regularly used by the Greeks and are still used today. In fact, the use of over 2,000 mirrors to generate electricity is currently being implemented in the Mojave Desert to make 10 megawatts of power.
Leonardo da Vinci is famously known for his paintings and sculptures during the Renaissance, but he also found interest in engineering and science. In the 15th century, da Vinci made the first known attempt to harness solar energy.
Another 300 years later in the mid-1700s, Horace de Saussur, a Swiss physicist, invented the first working solar oven, which was used on ships for long voyages.
Invention of Solar Cells
The history since the 1800s has been very divided. Some people credit the original discovery of PV potential in the early 1800s, while others only credit the PV cell invention in the mid-1900s. But, we’ll take you through that process to let you determine for yourself.
It all began in 1839, when French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the “photovoltaic effect.” Becquerel observed the production of electric currents when two metal electrodes were exposed to light, laying the foundation for future discoveries. The next major milestone occurred in 1873, when English electrical engineer, Willoughby Smith, discovered the photoconductivity of selenium. This led to the discovery by William Adams and Richard Day in 1876 that selenium creates electricity when exposed to sunlight.
Many people attribute the invention of solar cells to Charles Fritts, who created the first solar cells from selenium wafers in 1883. While some potential for the wafers was found in the following decades, none were fully functional. Little headway was made until Russell Shoemaker Ohl created the first silicon solar cell in 1940 at Bell Labs, which only had 1% efficiency.
However, it took another 14 years for Bell Labs engineers Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson to invent the first fully-functioning silicon, photovoltaic cell in 1954. Bell Labs announced the invention on April 25, 1954, which led the front page of the New York Times on April 26th to read: “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of harnessing the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” Just two years later, in 1956, the first solar cells were available for commercial use at a steep $300 for a 1-watt solar cell.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, from 1956 to 1975, the cost of solar panels decreased from $300 per watt to $100 per watt. And today, a solar panel costs a fraction of the price.
The Rise of Solar Power
Between 1970 and the 1990s, there was a massive rise in the use of solar within the US. The first instance of this was when the US became the first country to use solar power in space. The Vanguard I satellite was launched into space in 1958 and the still-orbiting satellite used a one-watt panel to power its radios.
Shortly thereafter, in 1973, the first solar powered building was created on the University of Delaware campus by researchers and students. The building was named “Solar One.” Then, students across the world had the opportunity to see solar power in action when solar powered calculators were invented in 1978.
In 1979, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, he had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House. Although removed in 1981, President Obama reinstalled the solar panels in 2010 and added a solar water heater.
Solar as We Know it Today
Since the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) was passed in 2006, there has been an increase in industry stability and growth. In the last decade, the use of solar panels has increased by an average 59% annually. Now, more than 250,000 Americans work in the solar industry—an increase of 123% since 2010—with more than 10,000 companies providing solar services nationwide. And, in 2018, the cost to install solar fell by more than 70% since 2010. According to SEIA, “In 2018, a new solar project has been installed in the U.S. every 100 seconds… [and] there are now more than 1.9 million solar installations in the U.S.” Now is the best time to make the switch to renewable energy.
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