What is the History of Solar Energy?

What is the History of Solar Energy?

Today, the solar energy industry has become a leading source of renewable power generation in the United States, which not only helps support the environment but assists with local job markets, communities and the overall reduction of electricity costs. Over time scientists have found ways to use solar power for homes, swimming pools, transportation, outdoor lighting and portable devices.

Discovered in 1839, solar energy has evolved into one of the hottest energy resources on the planet. In fact, renewable energy has been growing steadily in most parts of the world due to communities transitioning to a variety of power sources that support the environment. We can expect solar energy growth to continue to evolve.

Solar Energy Dates Back to the 1800s

Did you know that Albert Einstein, was known as the Father of Solar Cells? He believed in the science of solar energy before it was invented and predicted that energy from the sun could be harnessed for power. Einstein wrote a paper about the power of solar and eventually received the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work.

In 1839, a French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect at the young age of 19. Edmond was intrigued with the emission of light without heat, especially when displayed with sulfides and compounds of uranium. During Becquerel’s research study of photochemical reactions, he began to comprehend the absorption of light energy and uncovered the value of the photovoltaic effect. He realized when electrons were in an excited state in a conduction band, they could move freely through a material, thus creating a current.

Willoughby Smith, began the development of photoconductivity in 1873 when he began testing underwater cables. He was able to test circuitry with a semi-conducting material called selenium, which ultimately led to the invention of photoelectric cells. Smith realized through experimentation that the conductivity of the selenium rods increased significantly when exposed to sunlight.

The first solar panel was invented by Charles Fritts in 1883. Fritts calculated that by placing a thin, wide layer of selenium onto a metal plate, and covering it with a semitransparent gold-leaf, he could produce a current with a “continuous, constant, and of considerable force,” thus, launching a movement for producing solar energy.

1950s - The Solar Cell Era Begins

When the solar era began in the 1950s, Bell Laboratory scientists focused on photovoltaic (PV) developments and began utilizing silicon to produce solar cells. This breakthrough gave solar energy technology the needed funds for more research. Tests began on how the weather affected solar cells and how to increase the amount of electricity the solar cells were able to produce.

To prove the concept, Bell produced a solar panel with cells that relied exclusively on light power, to run a 21-inch Ferris wheel on solar energy.

During this era, the United States Navy enlisted scientist, Dr. Hans Ziegler, to see if solar cells could be used in lieu of chemical batteries. Through testing, Dr. Ziegler was able to replace the batteries with silicon solar cells because they performed stronger and continued working longer in comparison.

In the 1960s and 1970s, solar panel production proved to be too expensive for mainstream consumers, but scientists continued to develop solar energy technology in order to reduce the cost.

Solar Energy – The Right Price for the Future

Today, solar energy costs continue to fall rapidly. Over the last decade, solar panel prices have decreased 80 percent and across the USA, the cost of solar energy has dropped a whopping 73 percent since 2008. It is estimated that by 2020, with continued tech improvements, mainstream solar energy generation will offer a low-end electricity cost for homeowners.

With the advancements of light, ultra-thin solar panels and improved solar cells (or photovoltaic PV cells), solar panels continue to become lighter and more aesthetically pleasing on homes and businesses. Continued research and technological advancements in PV technology and concentrated solar power (CSP), have allowed engineers to produce more efficient solar-engineered hybrid, which helps drop the cost for consumers. Concentrated solar power uses mirrors to concentrate solar energy from the sun to traditional steam turbines or engines that produce electricity. Combined with photovoltaics, PV technology harnesses sunlight for power generation and then CSP uses the sun’s heat to create thermal energy. Using PV and CSP hybridized solar energy technology, enables high energy conversion efficiency and affordable storage.

Where is Solar Energy Today?

Scientists continue to look for ways to improve the effectiveness and affordability of solar cells. Recently, scientists at the University of Toronto launched light-sensitive nanoparticles named “colloidal quantum dots”, that will help reduce the cost of material for solar cell technology. The new “dots” use both n-type and p-type semiconductors that can function outdoors in any weather condition. Because the colloidal quantum dots don't bind to air, they can sustain stability outdoors. This innovation helps increase radiant light absorption and is found to be up to eight percent more effective at converting sunlight for solar energy. Since this is a new technology for solar energy, the scientists are continuing to hone the power conversion efficiency.

As renewable energy gains in popularity, the battery storage market is also taking off. With a battery, solar energy can be stored for use at night or when the grid is down.

Shifting to solar energy for a primary source of power makes smart economic sense. Solar cell innovations that unlock efficiencies in manufacturing panels, reducing installation costs, and improving performance of power-generation equipment paves the way for a stronger renewable generation market.

Sunnova’s global vision is to continue turning homes into energy-saving powerhouses by staying on top of cutting-edge technology to provide extensive knowledge and responsive service.