Solar Panel History: How it All Started?

The unexpected story or invention of solar panels is a very intriguing story. Getting to know when solar panels were invented will help us appreciate the current role it has on our daily lives. Many people today use electricity, and it is difficult to imagine our lives without it. 

There were lots of ways in which man could get electricity, but they were expensive, and they caused so much damage to the environment. Because of the importance of electricity, man has looked for alternative sources to get electricity and that is when solar was discovered as a source of energy.

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Transition to Solar Energy

Many countries have now discovered solar energy and it is rapidly replacing other conventional sources of energy like fossil fuel, coal, and gas. We are living in an era where a new revolutionary level of solar energy is emerging at a very drastic rate. 

With the discovery of solar energy, there was access to virtually inexhaustible sources of energy. The discovery of solar energy also opened ways to reduce carbon dioxide emission to the atmosphere by other sources of energy. In today’s world, the areas in which solar cells are applied are quite extensive. 

You can find in the market today a simple solar powered clock, laptops, racing cars, torch lights, even space satellites. Many farms are working effectively with solar energy in many countries today. In this article we are going to look at when solar panels were invented, how they work and what is the future of solar panels. So, let’s jump straight to evolution.

Evolution of Solar Panels

How it started! Solar energy is not something new to humanity and findings indicate that in the 7th century BC, man successfully used solar energy as a source of power. When we look at ancient history, solar panels are just the second human attempt to harness energy from the sun after ancient humanity did it successfully. 

Most importantly, solar energy worked for their benefit too. Water was heated to boiling point under direct concentrated sunshine to produce electricity in the first ever solar collector called the thermal power plant. 

Solar batteries were used to produce solar energy which was highly effective. The invention of the solar panel reduced the loss of solar energy which was lost using the multi stages of the solar collectors. 

A lot of energy was being lost using the conventional solar collectors and that is why humanity decided to invent the solar panel. Most solar collectors used steam formation, sunrays, water heating and a rotation of steam turbines all in the name of getting electricity.

A lot of solar energy was being lost In those processes and that is why there was a need for a much simpler way to harness solar energy. Which led to the evolution of solar panels.

Solar Panel Invention

Solar Panel Invention Starting Point: The 18th Century Beginnings

During the 18th century, the study of concave mirrors and their ability to focus sun rays started. Horace de Saussure, a Swiss physicist, in 1767 invented the first solar oven. When he invented the solar oven, he did not know that two decades in the future, his invention could be used to prepare dinner for people. 

In the 19th century, French engineers already started using the steam installation which was powered by solar energy to print books. Solar panels can be said to be the most significant discovery that used solar energy in the early days and that made the production of electricity possible.  

Antoine-Cesar Becquerel was a French physicist who discovered the effect of photovoltaic and used a chemical battery created by him in 1839. That discovery produced electricity under the impact of sunlight. The first solar cells to be discovered had an efficiency of one percent. That means only one percent of sunlight was turned into electricity. 

The discovery of selenium sensitivity to light was done in 1873 by Willoughby Smith. In 1877, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day noted that selenium could produce an electric current under the influence of sunlight.

The First Working Solar Panels

The first solar cell was produced in 1880 by Charles Fritts using gold plated selenium and it had an efficiency rate of one percent. Charles Fritts through that invention made solar cells revolutionary. 

That was when he discovered the benefits of solar energy and predicted that solar panels would soon come to replace the existing power stations.  However, his invention was not easily accepted and that is because the solar battery had a low performance, and his invention was soon forgotten. 

Another physicist by the name of Alexander Stoletov from Russia also studied the process of photoelectricity. He discovered an empirical connection between the impact of the photocurrent and the light flux that fell on the sample.

In 1888, Stoletov started working on a discovery that was done one year before by Heinrich Hertz and he began researching the photoelectric effect. His studies lasted two years and he never knew that by studying the photocurrent, he would become a famous world scientist.

Stoletov’s prototype of the solar cell on which he conducted the experiment for the installation scheme has been preserved in a manuscript. 

The central part of his whole invention was the introduction of a capacitor which consists of a metal grid, an anode and a flat metal disk called the cathode. When the cathode was struck by voltaic arc light from the sun, the galvanometer detected the presence of current on the circuit.

The Development and Contribution of Einstein On Solar Panels

The famous scientist Albert Einstein interestingly also dabbled in solar batteries. He scientifically explained the essence of photoelectric effect in 1905. 

He explained the speed of dependence of knocked electrons on the frequency of light. That meant that all the tools to master this source of energy entirely appeared in the hands of the researchers. 

Hopes started emerging for the implementation of solar cells which had a high performance. In 1921 the achievements of Einstein were considered crucial and he won a Nobel prize that same year for his explanation of photoelectric effects.

A Valuable Achievement of Solar Panel 

In the mid twentieth century, scientists got great knowledge in the field of diodes and transistors. There was widespread manufacturing of solar cells and that was after the development of silicon based solar cells by Bell Telephone telecommunications company. Silicon is still the most common material when it comes to the production of solar cells. 

In 1954, physicist Gordon Pearson, chemist Calvin Fuller and engineer Daryl Chapin created the silicon based solar cell and they all worked for the Bell Laboratories.

The Bell Lab was one of the best research centers in the world during those years. The Bell Labs managed to enhance the efficiency of solar panels to six percent. 

At that time, the price of energy produced was $300 per 1 KW which was much higher and could not compete with the cheaper fossil fuels. None of the inventors during those days thought of abandoning oil to protect the environment. 

That was when Chapin created power supply for telephones and installed them in remote areas, Pearson and Fuller investigated semiconductors and their properties and many people considered that event as the real discovery of photovoltaic technology. This was when electrical devices could be activated using solar technology and could work for a few hours daily.

Western Electric company in 1956 started selling licenses for its silicon photovoltaic technology. The high cost of silicon photovoltaic cells made it difficult to have a widespread market saturation. The real purification of silicon is an extremely costly process. 

However, hope is not lost as there are consequent alternatives which are being tried with copper compounds, gallium, indium, and cadmium.

The First Significant Drop in Price and The Introduction of Polycrystals in Solar Panels

Many people were forced to invest in solar energy research after the oil crisis of 1973. There was development of cheaper solar panels by Dr. Elliot Berman, who was founded by Exxon company. The price of solar energy dropped from $100 per watt to $20. 

Berman found that using single crystals in solar panels was expensive compared to the use of polycrystals which were much cheaper. However, there was a problem with efficiency. Polycrystalline solar cells are cheaper even today but are less efficient compared to single crystal cells. 

The first successful solar cells were used in rural and remote cities as a source of power for telephone systems. The generation of electricity was only allowed near the places where it was consumed. This therefore eliminated the need to distribute and transport electricity over long remote distant areas.

The First Solar Residence

Solar Panel Residence
Solar Panel Residence

The University of Delaware in 1973 took up the construction of the first solar building which was called ” Solar One”. The system was complicated in a technical sense as it had to work on composite equipment which consisted of solar photovoltaic and solar thermal power.

People used the thermal energy for heating water for domestic use and for cooling the building. Electricity was obtained through cadmium sulfide solar cells. The solar energy power that came from the solar cells was stored in lead car batteries and was used for the purpose of lighting and other uses and was able to use 115V DC. 

This was the first example of a building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). The building did not use solar panels, but it had solar integrated into the roof, the same concept of Tesla’s new roof project.

First Solar Power Stations

In 1982 in Hesperia, California, Arco Solar Inc. constructed the first solar park which was the foundation of a solar power plant. When operating at full capacity, the solar power plant generated 1MW or 1000 kilowatts per hour. 

That could power a 100kilowatt light bulb for at least ten hours. In 1983 Arco Solar built the second solar park in Carrizo Plain, California which was the most extensive collection of solar panels in the world. It consisted of 100,000 batteries that were able to generate5.2 megawatts at full power. 

Even though the solar power plant plunged into disrepair due to the popularity of oil, it was a demonstration of the potential of industrial production of solar electricity. In 1982 also the first solar power plant in Europe installed the first solar panel on the roof of the (SUPSI) Southern Switzerland Higher School. 

This generator has been producing electricity until now without interruption and replacements of solar modules. According to the Swiss Solar Energy Union solar power plants do not have moving parts that means they can operate for as long as possible. Laboratory tests have found out that it can exceed thirty years and that is a practical experience confirming that.

Astronautics, Aviation and Solar Panels

NASA has been actively using solar panels since 1958. The specialists of the agency have been installing the solar panels in satellites, space observations and space stations. In March 1958 American satellite the Vanguard 1 entered orbit. It was the fourth satellite to enter orbit and was the first of its kind to use solar energy. 

It was so small that you could hold it in one hand. Vanguard 1 was weighing 1.5 Kgs and was 16 cm in diameter with antennas of 76cm or 30 inches across. It has six silicon solar cells and was able to generate about 1 Watt in total. Just to compare it with the typical modern photovoltaic solar system which is several thousand times greater.

Moreover, compared to the global solar power solar cell, it is hundreds of billions of times greater than the ones which were used in Vanguard 1. Later that year, Vanguard 2, Explorer 3, and Sputnik-3 were all launched with the power of Photovoltaic systems on board. November 4, 1974 can as well be considered as the beginning of the solar aviation era. 

The first unmanned aerial vehicle which had a solar power plant rose to the sky and it was called the “Sunrise 1”. American company AeroVironment in 1980 created the first aircraft solar challenger. It flew from Paris, France to Manston, England covering 262 kilometers flying on solar energy. The first aircraft to be piloted by a human was invented in 2009 and was known as “Solar Impulse”. 

The Solar Impulse is capable of flying using the sun’s energy indefinitely and it stores its energy in batteries and can gain altitude during the day. In 2016 the “Solar Impulse 2” was invented and it is the  potent solar powered airplane today and it just completed its 16-month flight around the world.

Modern Solar Panel Manufacturers

Many solar panel manufacturers are coming up today and some of them offer an efficiency of 15 to 20 percent. They are equipped with solar trackers which can vastly increase their power output. Surprisingly, Asia has the leading solar panel manufacturers and China heads the top ten when it comes to solar panel manufacturing. 

Thus, Chinese companies are the leaders and some of the companies include Jinko Solar, Trina Solar, JA Solar, Suntech and Yingli Green Energy. Other exciting popular companies include Sun Power (USA), Canadian Solar (Canada) and First Solar (USA). The cost of solar panels has drastically reduced which has prompted the tide in buyers’ interest. 

In 1956, solar panel cost was approximately $300 per watt and by 1975 that amount had reduced drastically to $100 per watt. Other modern solar panel manufacturers suggest a price of $0.50 per watt. Since the year 1980, solar panel prices have reduced by 10 percent each year. 

The highly reducing cost of solar energy has greatly contributed to the popularity and legitimacy of photovoltaic solar as a reliable energy presently. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency price analysis, solar PV electricity has dropped to 73% after 2010. 

Moreover by 2020 the price of solar PV will be cut by half. Reliable solar PV projects will be able to use electricity for an equivalent of three cents per kWh or even less in two years’ time.

The Forecast of Solar Energy

Solar energy has had a great history in the past years, starting with the monitoring of light properties to finding new methods of transforming it into electricity. The advancement in technology is showing no signs of slowing down but it is advancing at an unprecedented speed. 

According to the International Energy Association, renewable energy power capacity is set to grow drastically by 50% during the period of 2020 and 2024 all thanks to solar PV. 

It is estimated that the production capacity of solar panels in the next few years will be 70,000 new solar panels per hour. According to Bloomberg’s Energy Outlook 2020, it states that wind and solar energy will provide 50% of electricity in 2050.

Solar Panel Invention Final Thoughts

Solar Panel History
Solar Panel History

Solar energy has been in existence for many centuries and we are yet to get the best in the coming years.

Solar panels use sunlight which is a clean, free, and renewable source of energy. 

For as long as the sun will shine, there will be new solar inventions every day and people will shift permanently to using renewable solar energy. 

Of course, the history of solar panels still has a long way to go before fulfilling the dream of Charles Fritts

His dream was that we will be able to receive free and affordable solar power in the coming years. We all believe that the prospects of civilization are associated with solar panels. 

Solar energy will be with no doubt one of the primary sources of renewable energy in the 21 centuries. 

We hope you got some insight on how solar panels were invented and learned about what the future holds for us if we all decide to go solar.

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