The History of Solar Power

November 26, 2015

Solar power isn’t new at all. It’s was discovered a long time ago. In the 7th century B.C, sunlight was used to light fires by concentrating it on mirrors and glass. Solar power has been constantly developed throughout the years, and today is used in many practical applications. In this blog post we will give you a very brief overview on the history of solar energy and solar panels.

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The historical development of solar technology:

  • First solar collector/oven –
    In the year 1767, a Swiss scientist, Horace-Benedict de Saussure created the first solar oven. It was mainly constructed by placing layers of glass inside a box. The glass layers had a lining between them and the light was allowed to pass through the glass and then absorbed by the lining so it can be turned into heat. It became widely known at the time because it could reach temperatures up to 230 degrees fahrenheit.

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  • The discovery of photovoltaic effect –
    In the year 1839, Edmund Becquerel, a French physicist, discovered that the electricity increased between two electrodes in an electrolyte after they were exposed to sunlight. This oven was used to cook and heat meals and drinks. He was only 19 years old when he discovered it, but he didn’t know that his discovery would lay the foundation of solar power later.
  • The discovery of photoconductivity in selenium –
    In 1873, an electrical engineer named Willoughby Smith, discovered that the conductivity of selenium increased when exposed to light. Although later attempts were made to construct solar cells from selenium, the cell didn’t really work well but it was proven that producing electricity by light did not require any heat or moving parts and that was another great discovery for the development of solar power.
  • First photovoltaic cell design –
    In 1883, the American inventor by the name of Charles Fritts, constructed a solar cell by applying selenium to a thin layer of gold, but it wasn’t practical for use as it had an efficiency of 1%.
  • Einstein and the photoelectric effect –
    Many people know a lot about Einstein, but they’ve never heard of the breakthrough he made in the field of solar power. In 1904, he explained how the electrons liberate from the surface of a metal when exposed to light. 16 years later he was awarded The Nobel Prize for this discovery.
  • Silicon crystals –
    In 1918, Jan Czochralski developed a way of creating single-crystal silicon, and that was totally an accident. This discovery was the basis for silicon solar cells, and also for the creation of transistors for microprocessor units.
  • High efficiency photovoltaic cell –
    In 1954, three scientists presented their first solar battery by diffusing boron into silicon. The efficiency of the cell was 6%. The battery powered a small toy windmill and a radio. It wasn’t available for commercial use but it was the basis for the development of solar cells ever since.
  • The world’s first commercial solar building –
    In 1956, Don Paxton and Frank Bridgers designed the world’s first commercial solar building. They achieved incredibly high efficiency of thermal storage and solar heating depending only on mechanical solutions. The design they made is still used today to create energy-efficient homes.
  • Solar power in space
    In the 50s and 60s, solar energy was used to power space exploration equipment such as satellites and space stations. SBSP stands for Space-based solar power. It’s the idea of collecting solar power in space as it has higher collection rate and longer collection period, since 55–60% of the solar energy that comes to the earth is lost in the atmosphere by the effects of reflection and absorption.

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In 1990s, the first grid-supported photovoltaic cell was completed and installed in California. In 1999, the efficiency of the solar cells reached 32.3%. In the 2000s, the largest residential installation was to provide solar energy to a 6000-square-foot home. In 2004, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger started the Million Solar Roofs Initiative. In 2008, the efficiency of the solar cells reached 42.8%. In 2012, record breaking solar plants were installed such as the Golmud Solar Park in China with an installed capacity of 200 megawatts, but this was surpassed by India’s Gujarat Solar Park which is a collection of solar farms scattered around the Gujarat region. Even though the standard cells that are available today are around 20% efficiency, we can see that great improvements are coming to the solar energy landscape.