History of Solar Energy

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1800s-1950

The photovoltaic (PV) effect refers to the creation of electricity when a material is exposed to light. The name is a combination of phos (meaning light in Greek) and volta (Volta was the Italian physicist after whom the volt is named).

Although the sun’s energy has been used for millenia, the history of solar cells begins in the 1800s. The PV effect was first discovered by A.E. Becquerel, a French physicist, in 1839, but the first photovoltaic cell was not built until 1883, by Charles Fritts. For the next few decades, scientists discovered more about how solar energy works.

solar-panel-test

Testing a solar battery in 1954. Photo Credit: Bell Labs

1950s-1970

The 1950s was a period of great importance in the history of solar power. The first modern PV cell – able to convert enough solar radiation to electricity to power various devices – was developed by scientists at Bell Laboratories in 1954. The original silicon solar cell had a 4% efficiency.

1956 was another key point in the history of solar panels: research into using PV cells for satellites began. The first satellite to use solar energy (to power radios) was the Vanguard I, launched in 1958. Although solar power for homes was still pricey, PV power use in satellites was expanding. In 1962, Bell Telephone launched of the first solar-powered telecommunications satellite, the Telstar. 

1970s and Beyond

Technological progress as well as greater interest by the oil industry helped lower the price of PV cells. After the oil crisis of the 1970s, oil companies recognized that oil would be too expensive in the future.Companies including Shell, BP and Mobil began to invest in solar research.

pv-panels-roof-white-house

Solar panels were installed on the roof of the White House in 1979.

It was through funding from Exxon that Dr. Elliot Berman developed a cheaper solar cell. Berman discovered that, while lowering efficiency, using silicon from multiple crystals was much cheaper than using the silicon from a single crystal. That development brought the price down fivefold. Solar cells were now used in offshore gas and oil rigs, and began to be seen as an alternative energy source in remote off-grid locations.

In the meantime, with the help of greater funding for solar research, new varieties of silicon were developed, allowing for the widening of uses for solar energy. Since the 2000s, PV solar panels have become affordable and practical for residential use, and are widely used in non-residential applications, too.

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