nce blowing people's minds, solar power has evolved into a somewhat mainstream renewable energy source over the past few decades. Solar panels are now successfully used by both homeowners and businesses, as have proven to be a reliable solution to cut down carbon footprint and curb energy bills.

Introduction: the history of solar energy is long and ever evolving

However, there is a long history of painstaking research and groundbreaking discoveries behind it. It all began with French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel discovering the photovoltaic effect in 1839. The first solar cell was created in 1883 by American inventor Charles Fritts, but it was not until the 1930s that they were used commercially. Solar technology has been improving steadily over the years, and in 1954, Bell Labs produced the first silicon solar cells, which are still used today.

So let’s take a deep dive and look back at some major milestones in solar technology.

Who was the first to harness solar energy?

Humans always sought to tap solar potential. One of the earliest examples of solar energy usage can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Over 2000 years ago, citizens used mirrors to harness solar resources and use them to light torches during nighttime celebrations.

Ancient Greeks and Romans even used solar energy to heat homes and bathhouses. Their buildings often had "sunrooms" with high windows that channeled sunlight for both heating and lighting.

Photovoltaic effect – the phenomenon behind the solar cell

The photovoltaic effect is one of the most important discoveries in the field of solar energy, which was made by French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. He created the world’s first photovoltaic cell, also called a solar cell, while experimenting in his father’s laboratory as a nineteen-year-old.

Becquerel found that placing two electrodes in an acidic solution would result in one of them generating electricity when exposed to light. Solar photovoltaic energy conversion, which was at first known as the “Becquerel effect”, became an operating principle of the solar cell.

Who invented solar panels and what happened next?

After nearly 30 years, English engineer Willoughby Smith discovered selenium had photoconductive properties while testing underwater telegraph cables in 1873.

In 1883, American scientist Charles Fritts invented the first solar cells from selenium wafers covered with a thin layer of gold. It is he who is considered to be the creator of a solar panel – he installed the first one on New York City rooftop in 1884. Fritts envisioned solar energy as an alternative to Edison's coal power plants. However, solar cells could only convert around 1% of the sunlight into electricity, making solar technology not economically viable.

In 1887 German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz discovered the photoelectric effect while working on radio waves. He noticed that when UV light hits two metal electrodes with voltage applied across them, the voltage changes.

Hertz did not provide the reasoning behind this phenomenon, which was done later by Albert Einstein. Despite being best known for his Theory of Relativity, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his 1905 paper where he shed light on the photoelectric effect. This laid a foundation on which solar energy technology was later built.

The invention of the silicon cell - the first practical solar power solution

One of the most important discoveries for the future of solar energy was made in 1954 at Bell Labs. Three scientists, Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller, and Daryl Chapin, found out that silicon was a more efficient semiconductor than selenium and designed a silicon solar cell - the first PV cell capable of converting enough energy to power everyday electrical equipment. This invention was a big milestone and a 600% improvement on previous technologies used to harness solar power.

Those silicon cells were able to convert only 6% of light into electricity, meaning they were still commercially unviable. However, this innovation set the stage for the development of solar panels that now produce energy around the globe.

In the 1960s, silicon solar cells found application in the space industry - with the space race taking off, they became a popular power source for satellites. But space market couldn’t create sufficient demand, so solar cells remained pricey.

Photovoltaic panels conquer the market

The development of solar technologies throughout the 1970s greatly enhanced the performance of PV cells, which dramatically drove down the cost of panel production. First solar cells were at 1% efficiency and cost around $300 per watt, while in the seventies solar panels cost around $20 per watt and their efficiency rose to 14%.

Оil shock followed by the energy crisis gave additional impetus to the development of solar power, which has been widely recognized as a great alternative source of electricity for homes and businesses. Solar market growth slowed a little in the 1980s as oil and gas prices recovered, but it kept gaining broad public attention and was supported by government subsidies.

However, solar technologies kept developing and were actively paving their way into multiple industries. In 1981, American engineer Paul Macready built the first airplane to run on solar power. With over 1,600 PV cells it successfully flew from France to England. The trend of solar electric vehicles continued by creating the first solar cars in Germany in 1982.

Solar panel revolution from 1990 to present

Solar technology saw significant improvements in the early 1990s. In 1994 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) run by the U.S. Department of Energy achieved an unprecedented solar cell efficiency of over 30%. This cell wasn’t meant for public use and has been designed primarily for space applications.

However, residential solar solutions continued developing and gaining popularity. As of 1999, over 1,000 megawatts of solar capacities were installed around the world.

PV panels became increasingly common in the mid-2010s. Design and engineering improvements made installation easier and cut solar energy costs by about 90% in just a decade.

Solar power has come a long way since the 1800s and will continue to progress as we move towards greener forms of energy. Costs of solar panel installation have been declining over the years and their efficiency keeps growing. According to recent scientific studies, solar cell efficiency can potentially reach 62% in the future.

Jul 11, 2023

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