A Brief History of Solar Energy

Solar power has been around for a lot longer than most people think.

Though it only became a commercially viable source of energy in the last two decades, the first solar cell was actually invented over 180 years ago.

Here’s a brief timeline of solar innovation from then to now.

1839 – First solar cell

It all started 184 years ago, when nineteen-year-old French physicist, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel successfully generated an electrical current by shining light on an acidic silver-chloride solution.

Becquerel’s primitive solar cell couldn’t generate enough power to run anything. And a beaker full of liquid with wires coming out was never going to be a practical energy source, anyway.

But as the first to prove that it was possible to harness clean and renewable energy from sunlight, Becquerel gave birth to an energy revolution.

1883 – First solar panel

34 years after Becquerel's discovery, American inventor Charles Fritts creates the first solar panel using solar cells made from selenium wafers.

10 years earlier, English electrical engineer, Willoughby Smith discovered that—just like Becquerel’s acidic silver-chloride solution—selenium generates a current when exposed to light. Fritts’s solar cells were even affixed to some New York rooftops. But with an energy conversion rate of only around 1%, they were too inefficient to be much more than a novelty item.

1905 – Einstein’s theory of photons

Albert Einstein publishes his revolutionary theory on the nature of light, which explained why certain substances generated an electrical current when exposed to it. Few are aware that it was this paper rather than his work on the more famous Theory of Relativity for which Einstein earned his Nobel prize.

1954 More efficient silicon solar cell

Almost 50 years after Einstein's groundbreaking work, three physicists at Bell Labs, Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and Calvin Fuller, used silicon to create the first solar cell that could produce enough power to run electrical equipment.

Four years later in 1958, six solar cells using the same technology powered the Vanguard I satellite. Though the 10% conversion rate was another leap forward, Vanguard’s silicon solar cells were still too inefficient to be a commercially viable source of earth-bound power.

1963 – First mass-produced solar cells

It only took another nine years till Sharp Corporation started mass-producing silicon solar panels capable of converting 10% of the sun’s energy into usable electricity for the commercial market.

That same year, Japan installed a 242-watt array to power a lighthouse, the world’s largest solar system at the time.

1970s – Innovation lowers costs

Thanks to scientific research, the cost of producing solar panels dropped down 80%, creating a limited commercial market for off-grid use.

1985 – 20% efficiency reached

Researchers at the University of South Wales create the first silicon solar cell to break the 20% efficiency barrier, paving the way for...

2010 to today – the Solar Boom

Manufacturing costs for mass-produced solar panels began to steadily decline, leading to a cumulative 70% drop in price over the decade. Meanwhile, the efficiency of mass-market solar panels improved by an average of 0.5% each year.

Combined with government incentives, these factors brought the average per-kWh cost of rooftop solar below utility company rates.

A solar power boom is fueled, as more and more businesses and homeowners learn they can save significant sums of money while achieving energy independence by going solar.

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