Key takeaways

Bright Future of Solar: Solar emerges as a dominant renewable energy source, offering safety, reliability, cost savings, and environmental benefits.

Ancient Sun Harvesting: Solar's roots trace back to 6000 B.C. in China, with Greeks and Romans adopting passive solar designs for homes and religious rituals.

Photovoltaic Breakthrough (1839): Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovers the photovoltaic effect, laying the foundation for solar energy. Practical applications, however, take decades.

First Solar Panels (1873): Willoughby Smith's discovery of selenium's photoconductivity and Charles Fritts' gold-coated selenium solar cell mark significant progress, albeit with low efficiency.

Silicon Revolution (1954): Bell Laboratories introduces the first silicon solar cell, achieving 6% efficiency, propelling solar technology forward.

Solar in Space (1950s-1960s): Solar panels find utility in space exploration, powering satellites and becoming a pivotal force in solar technology development.

1970s Oil Crisis Boost (1973): The oil crisis triggers increased government support, culminating in the Energy Tax Act of 1978, fostering solar market growth.

Environmental Awakening (1990s): Growing environmental concerns in the 1990s elevate the importance of renewable energy sources, including solar.

Technological Advancements (2000s): Ongoing refinement in manufacturing processes leads to cost reductions and efficiency breakthroughs in the 2000s.

Solar Soars (Mid-2010s Onwards): Solar's exponential growth in the mid-2010s sees a 90% cost reduction within a decade, positioning it as the fastest-growing electricity source globally.

Solar, with its illustrious history, stands poised to play a pivotal role in the world's future electricity production, anticipating a more than tenfold increase in global solar capacity by 2050 (IRENA).


he future of solar is exceedingly bright: it has the potential to become the major source of renewable energy in the world. The demand for solar energy is growing rapidly and this is not surprising. It is safe, reliable, and clean, it helps save money on electricity bills and reduces carbon footprint. Solar panels can be installed to generate clean power for domestic use or for commercial applications.

History of solar: the rise of an all-star in renewable energy game

Solar has been a topic in global science since the early 20th century but it was not until recently that it became an attractive alternative to conventional sources of power such as fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

The history of solar began back in the middle of the 19th century, has undergone many transformations throughout the 20th century, and keeps evolving today. In this article, we'll explore the solar energy history, from ancient times to the present day.

History of Solar energy in timelines
Source: History of Solar Panels and Energy: Timeline & Events

Harvesting solar in ancient times

People attempted to harness the power of the sun throughout the history of mankind. The first evidence of harvesting solar energy goes back to 6000 B.C. when homebuilders in China developed the key principles of passive solar building design.

The technology was also adopted and developed by ancient Greeks, who took advantage of solar radiation using mirrors to light torches for religious rituals. They built their houses to collect the heat from the sun during the day and release it after the sunset, which helped maintain a relatively even temperature day and night. The Romans harnessed solar energy for heating purposes as well. For example, they employed passive solar energy and radiant heating technologies for their famous baths.

Invention of the photovoltaic effect – the basic principle of solar

The history of solar energy as we know it today goes back to the first observation of the photovoltaic effect in 1839. The underlying principle of solar energy was discovered by 19-year-old French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel while experimenting with electrolytic cells. He found that two electrodes placed in an acidic solution generated electricity when one of them was exposed to light.

But even though Becquerel had presented the world with solar photovoltaics, it took decades before the discovery found its practical application.

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First solar panels

The next significant step in solar history was made in 1873 when English engineer Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium while testing underwater telegraph cables. In other words, he found that the element is capable of conducting electricity when it is exposed to light.

Ten years later, American scientist Charles Fritts invented the first solar cell by coating selenium with an ultra-thin layer of gold. He was also the first one to install a solar panel on a New York rooftop in 1884. Fritts claimed the technology could challenge Thomas Edison’s coal-fired plants, however, the solar cells he produced were only able to convert 1-2% of solar power into electricity, which made them uncompetitive.

Silicon solar cells

A significant milestone in the history of solar energy was the invention of the first silicon solar cell in 1954. Three researchers at Bell Laboratories — Daryl Chapin, Gerald Pearson, and Calvin Fuller — were working on alternatives to dry cell batteries for the company’s remote telephone equipment. They found that arsenic-doped silicon and boron-doped silicon together form the positive-negative junction that results in an unprecedented silicon cell efficiency rate of 6%.

Solar modules in outer space

Solar panels were still not viable enough for general use but found their application in the space industry in the late 1950s and 1960s. Solar arrays were powering satellites by uninterruptedly collecting solar radiation.

American satellite Vanguard became the fourth satellite to enter orbit and the first in history to use solar power. The spacecraft had 6 silicon PV cells that together produced around one watt of energy. For comparison, an average domestic solar panel today produces 250-400 watts per hour.

This is how the space race became the driving force behind the development of solar technologies creating a market demand from a booming industry.

1970s oil crisis and surge of interest in solar

The Arab oil embargo in 1973 caused an oil price surge and led to a global oil shock. The oil crisis was a major catalyst for solar development, as the need arose to diversify and localize energy sources.

U.S. governmental support for renewables increased significantly, spurring investment and scaling up research. The support for research and development of solar technology helped reach 14% solar cell efficiency.

Maximize energy output with high watt solar panels, harnessing abundant sunlight efficiently for sustainable power generation.

In 1978 Congress passed the Energy Tax Act, which provided tax credits for the residential adoption of solar, including solar electric and heating systems. Solar market growth slowed in the 1980s as traditional energy prices decreased, however, solar power was still supported by the government.

Watch this comprehensive video guide about the History of Solar Energy

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Recent history of solar power

The 1990s were marked by increasing concern over environmental issues, keeping solar energy on the radar throughout the 1990s. World economies began to grow the share of renewable sources, primarily wind and solar, in their energy mix.

The solar manufacturing process kept refining in the 2000s, which resulted in cost reduction and breakthroughs in efficiency. But solar energy really took off in the mid-2010s, when its costs declined by around 90% in just a decade.

Today solar is the fastest growing electricity source and apparently is going to play a vital role in future global electricity production. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), global solar capacity can increase more than tenfold by 2050.

Key takeaways

Jul 3, 2023
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