Solar technology sounds like something right fout of a sci-fi movie for a lot of us. However, you’d be surprised to know that solar technology is quite old. The possibility of producing electricity was first discovered in 1839. After that, it took many minds and many years to bring solar technology into the shape and form that we get to see today. Solar technology’s history is intriguing and fascinating. Knowing what went into developing this amazing technology will only help us appreciate it more.
The Need For Solar Energy
Solar technology provides us with a sustainable solution to dealing with the energy crisis. It is also cost effective since there isn’t any need for processing or harvesting sunlight (solar energy’s fuel). The many benefits of solar technology have encouraged many people to research on this technology and help advance its development.
Nowadays, we can see solar technology being used in so many different ways. And as this technology is being further developed, its application is becoming more and more common. Let’s take a look at how did solar technology reach the point where it is today.
Solar Technology’s Evolution
The idea of harnessing the sun’s energy has been around for a very long time. Before the discovery of the photovoltaic effect, humanity used the sun’s heat energy in various ways. Even today, there are power-plants that use the sun’s heat energy to produce electricity. Modern day solar technology uses the photovoltaic effect to produce electricity from sunlight. This method of electricity production is efficient and also very cost effective.
Early Days of Solar Technology
Like we mentioned above, the ability to produce electricity from sunlight was discovered in 1839. But before that, there was research being done on how can sunlight be used to obtain heat energy. The first solar oven was invented by a swiss physicist named Horace de Saussure. The discovery of the ability to concentrate sunlight to produce heat led to a variety of other breakthroughs as well.
In 1839, the photovoltaic effect was finally discovered by a French scientist. He made a chemical battery that used this effect to produce electricity. However, this battery was far from being practical because it only had an efficiency of 1%.
In 1873, it was discovered that selenium is sensitive to light. This discovery by Willoughby Smith was further advanced by Richard Evans Day and William Grylls Adams. These two discovered in 1877 that an electric current is produced whenever selenium is exposed to sunlight.
The 1st Solar Panel
In 1880, the first proper solar cell was made by Charles Fritts. He used gold plated selenium to make this cell, and despite the fact that this solar cell only had an efficiency of 1%, it was still a major breakthrough. This solar cell was proof that solar technology could be refined and used at a practical level. Unfortunately, at that time, the unimpressive efficiency of this solar cell didn’t get it the attention that it deserved.
After this, in 1888, a Russian scientist named Stoletov conducted further research on the technology. His research gained attention from all over the world, making him famous. Stoletov’s research was documented in manuscripts that recorded his findings.
Einstein And Solar Technology
The famous scientist Einstein also experimented with solar technology. In 1905, he made contributions that advanced our understanding of the photovoltaic effect. His research laid the groundwork for refining solar technology and increasing the efficiency of solar cells.
A Major Breakthrough
In the middle of the 20th century, research was conducted on diodes and transistors which resulted in valuable information that would contribute to the manufacturing of the first silicone solar cell.
The Bell Telephone company made the first silicone based solar cell using this information. Thanks to this, largescale manufacturing of solar technology became a reality. Most solar cells produced today use silicone as well. Bell telephone’s solar cells had an efficiency of 6%, which was a huge step forward. Unfortunately, the per 1kW price of solar energy at that time was $300, which was far too much when compared to fossil fuels. Back then, environmental concerns weren’t such a big deal, so no one wanted to switch to the better, yet expensive, solution.
After this breakthrough, solar technology reached the shape and form that it has today. However, there would still be a long time before the cost of solar technology would go down.
In 1973, the oil crisis made people realize that fossil fuels aren’t sustainable. This led to a lot of money being invested in the development of solar technology. Thanks to this research, the price of solar technology went down by 20%. Berman discovered that using polycrystals helped reduced the cost of productions quite significantly. But this price drop came at a cost; polycrystals were a cheaper solution, but they also had lesser efficiency.
Modern polycrystal solar panels have the same problem; they are cheaper to make, but their efficiency is lesser than single crystal panels.
The Solar One Project
As solar technology was starting to become a practical option, it started gaining more attention. The University of Delaware initiated the Solar One project in 1973. This was going to be the first solar building to be constructed.
The building was going to be powered by thermal and PV (electric) solar power. This building was the first example of a structure integrated with solar technology.
The 1st Solar Power Station
The concept of a solar power station was first constructed in 1982 by Arco Solar. This solar park in Hesperia, California was able to generate 1MW per hour when fully functional. 1MW per hour is able to power 1 100kW bulb for about 10 hours.
The second solar park by Arco Solar was built in the following year, in Carrizo Plain, California. This solar park could produce 5.2MW per hour at full capacity. These solar power stations didn’t receive a lot of attention since they were still being overshadowed by fossil fuels. However, they provided an insight into what could solar technology do for us in the future.
These old solar power stations also provided us with insight on the longevity of solar technology. One solar power station in Europe (which was built in 1982 as well) is still functioning. Solar technology has very little wear and tear since there aren’t any moving parts involved in the energy production process.
Solar Panels in Space
By 1958, solar technology had reached a point where it was adopted by NASA. To this day, NASA uses solar panels to power their satellites and the International Space Station. The Vanguard 1 was the first satellite to use solar panels for power.
By 1980, solar technology was also being used in aviation. There was research being conducted with solar powered unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). In 2016, the most successful solar plane was tested as well: Solar Impulse 2.
Modern Day Solar Panels
Solar panels that are being produced nowadays have an efficiency of 15% to 20%. When combined with technology such as solar trackers, these panels can produce an amazing amount of energy.
Currently, the solar panel manufacturing industry is being led by Chinese companies. There are also a few US companies that are making a name for themselves. Thanks to widescale manufacturing, the cost of solar technology has really come down. Nowadays, you can find solar panels with a cost as low as $0.5 per watt. That’s a huge price drop from the $100 per watt prices in the 70s.
According to forecasts, the cost of solar technology is going to drop even further by 2021. All thanks to rapid advancements being made in this field. By 2024, it is estimated that global renewable energy capacity will grow by 50% thanks to solar technology becoming more widespread. And by 2050, solar energy will be responsible for meeting 50% of the world’s electricity needs.
Solar technology has had a long and interesting history. What was once thought of to be a secondary source of energy is now becoming the next big thing in energy production. In the coming years, solar technology will have become widespread enough to solve our energy problem and also help save the environment.