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  • Melissa Deaver

The History of Solar Power

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

The solar industry has exploded in the last several decades, as the technology has become more affordable and readily available to the average homeowner. But the technology behind solar isn't anything new. In fact, there is evidence of utilizing solar energy for various purposes that can be traced back to the 7th century B.C. Check out the interesting timeline below to see how we've always harnessed the sun's power for our benefit.

7th Century B.C. Magnifying glass used to concentrate the sun's power to start fires

3rd Century B.C. Greeks and Romans use burning mirrors to light torches

2nd Century B.C. Evidence that the Greek Navy was experimenting with bronze shields reflecting the sun's rays to set fire to ships at sea

20 A.D. Chinese document the use of mirrors to light torches

1st to 4th Century A.D. Roman bathhouses built with South facing windows for warmth

1200s A.D. Anasazi people build South facing cliff dwellings for warmth, demonstrating passive solar design

1767 Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure was credited with building the first solar collector, which was later used by Sir John Herschel to cook food during his South Africa expedition in the 1830s.

1816 Robert Stirling applied for a patent for his economizer. Stirling was a minister by trade, but in his spare time, he built heat engines in his home workshop. This engine was later used in the dish/Stirling system, a solar thermal electric technology that concentrates the sun's thermal energy to produce power

1839 Edmond Becquerel discovers the photovoltaic effect

1860 August Mouchet proposed an idea for solar-powered steam engines. In the following two decades, he and his assistant constructed the first solar powered engines and used them for a variety of applications. These became the predecessors of modern parabolic dish collectors

1873 Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium

1876 William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day discover that selenium produces electricity when exposed to light. They proved a solid material could change light into electricity without heat or moving parts

1880 Samuel P. Langley invents the bolometer, which measures light from stars and the sun's heat rays.

1883 Charles Fritts describes the first solar cells made from selenium wafers

1887 Heinrich Hertz discovers that ultraviolet light altered the lowest voltage capable of causing a spark to jump between two metal electrodes

1891 Clarence Kemp patented the first commercial solar water heater

1904 Wilhelm Hallwachs discovers that a combination of copper and cuprous oxide is photosensitive

1905 Albert Einstein publishes his paper on the photoelectric effect

1908 William J. Bailey invents a solar collector with copper coils and an insulated box (roughly, the present design)

1914 The existence of a barrier layer in photovoltaic devices is noted

1918 Jan Czochralski develops a way to grow single-crystal silicon

1921 Albert Einstein wins the Nobel Prize for his theories explaining the photoelectric effect

1932 Audbert and Stora discover the photovoltaic effect in cadmium sulfide

1947 Passive solar buildings in the US were in high demand, as a result of the scarce energy during WWII. Your Solar House was published, which profiled forty-nine of the nation's greatest solar architects

1953 Dr. Dan Trivich makes the first theoretical calculations of the efficiencies of various materials of different band gap width based on the spectrum of the sun

1954 Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson develop the silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell labs. This was the first solar cell capable of converting enough energy to run everyday equipment. The first prototype had 4% efficiency

1955 Western Electric began to sell commercial licenses for silicon photovoltaic (PV) chargers and devices that decoded computer punch cards and tape

1950s Frank Bridgers designs the world's first commercial office building using solar water heating and passive design. This has been operating since that time.

1956 William Cherry approaches RCA labs about developing PV cells for proposed orbiting Earth satellites

1957 Hoffman Electronics achieves an 8% efficient PV cell

1958 U.S. Signal Corps Laboratories fabricates n-on-p silicon PV cells

1958 Hoffman Electronics achieves an 9% efficient PV cell

1958 The Vanguard I space satellite used a small array to power its radios. Later that year, Explorer III, Vanguard II and Sputnik-3 were launched with PV powered systems on board. Despite faltering attempts to commercialize the silicon solar cell in the 50s and 60s, it was used successfully in powering satellites. It became the accepted energy source for space applications and remains so today.

1959 Hoffman Electronics achieves an 10% efficient PV cell. They also learn to use a grid contact, reducing resistance

1960 Hoffman Electronics achieves a 14% efficient PV cell

1960 Silicon Sensors, Inc, is founded and starts producing selenium and silicon PV cells

1962 Bell Telephone Laboratories launches the first telecommunication satellite

1963 Sharp Corporation succeeds in producing practical silicon PV modules

1963 Japan installs a 242 watt array, the world's largest at that time

1964 NASA launches the first Nimbus spacecraft--a satellite powered by a 470-watt PV array

1966 NASA launches the first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, powered by a 1 kW PV array

1969 The Odeillo solar furnace was constructed in France, featuring an 8-story parabolic mirror

1970s Dr. Elliot Berman, designs a significantly less costly solar cell, bringing price down from $100 per watt to $20 per watt. Solar cells begin to power navigation warning lights and horns on offshore gas and oil rigs, lighthouses, railroad crossings and domestic solar applications began to be viewed as sensible applications.

1972 The Institute of Energy Conversion is established at the University of Delaware to perform research and development on thin-film PV and solar thermal systems, becoming the first laboratory dedicated to PV research and development.

1973 The University of Delaware builds "Solar One," one of the world's first PV powered residences. The system is a PV/thermal hybrid.

1976 The NASA Lewis Research Center starts installing 83 PV power systems on every continent except Australia.

1976 David Carlson and Christopher Wronski fabricate first amorphous silicon PV cells

1977 The US Department of energy launches the Solar Energy Research Institute

1977 Total photovoltaic manufacturing production exceeds 500 kilowatts

1978 NASA's Lewis Research Center dedicates a 3.5kW PV system installed on Papago Indian Reservation, the world's first village PV system. This is used to provide water pumping and residential electricity for 15 homes until 1983 when grid electricity reached the village.

1980 ARCO Solar becomes the first company to produce more than 1 megawatt of PV modules in 1 year

1980 University of Delaware creates the first thin-film solar cell that exceeds 10% efficiency using copper/cadmium sulfide

1981 Paul MacCready builds the first solar-powered aircraft that flies from France to England.

1982 The first PV megawatt-scale power station goes on-line in California

1982 Hans Tholstrup drives the first solar-powered car

1982 The US Department of Energy, along with an industry consortium, begins operating Solar One, a 10-megawatt central-receiver demonstration project.

1982 Worldwide PV production exceeds 9.3 megawatts

1993 Worldwide PV production exceeds 21.3 megawatts

1985 The University of South Wales breaks the 20% efficiency barrier

1986 The world's largest thermal facility, in California, was commissioned.

1986 ARCO Solar releases the G-4000, the world's first commercial thin-film power module

1988 Dr. Alvin Marks receives patents for two solar power technologies he developed: Lepcon and Lumeloid.

1991 President George Bush redesignates the US Department of Energy's Solar Energy Research Institute as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

1992 University of South Florida develops a 15.9% efficient thin-film PV cell

1992 A 7.5 kW prototype dish system using an advanced stretched-membrane concentrator becomes operational

1993 Pacific Gas & Electric completes installation of the first grid-supported PV system in California, becoming the first "distributed power" effort.

1994 The National Renewable Energy Laboratory completes construction of their research facility, which was recognized as the most energy efficient of all US government buildings

1994 The National Renewable Energy Laboratory develops a solar cell that becomes the first one to exceed 30% conversion efficiency

1999 Construction was completed on 4 Times Square, which incorporated more energy-efficient building techniques than any other commercial skyscraper

1999 Spectrolab Inc develops a PV cell that converts 32.3% of sunlight to electricity\

1999 Cumulative worldwide installed PV capacity reaches 1000 megawatts

2000 Solar production begins production in Ohio at the world's largest PV manufacturing plant with an estimated capacity of producing enough panels to generate 100 megawatts of power

2000 At the International Space Station, astronauts begin installing panels on what will be the largest solar power array developed in space

2000 Sandia National Laboratories develops a new inverter that increases the safety of systems during a power outage

2000 Two new thin-film solar modules break previous performance records

2001-Present Day

Solar has continued to only get more powerful and efficient with every passing year. More affordable parts mean more affordable arrays and more availability to residents and businesses. The average solar panels today hit the efficiency mark of around 25%. It's fascinating to look back through the 20th century and see how solar got where it is today!

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