The History of Solar Energy: A Journey through the Evolution of Solar Technology

The History of Solar Energy

Ever since the 7th century B.C., people have been amazed by the Sun’s power. Back then, stories say they even used magnifying glasses to start fires! Let’s take a fun trip through the history of solar energy, a journey that stretches over many, many years. People have always wanted to know what solar energy is and how we can use it. In old times, like in ancient Greece and Rome, they used “burning mirrors” during special ceremonies and built sunrooms in bathhouses to soak up the Sun’s warmth.

As we look more into solar energy’s past, we see big steps in how we get electricity from the sun. A really important moment was in 1839 when Edmond Becquerel discovered something amazing called the photovoltaic effect. Also, the timeline of solar panels is full of cool firsts, like when the first practical solar cells were made in the mid-20th century. These inventions helped make solar energy a popular choice for clean power.

When were solar panels invented? The landmark moment came in 1954, courtesy of Bell Labs. And they’ve evolved rapidly—from $300 per watt in the 1950s to the remarkably affordable figures we see today. In our exploration, we will uncover who invented solar panels, who discovered solar energy and highlight when the first solar panels were made, illustrating an impressive trajectory towards a sustainable future.

The history of solar energy ancient Greece

Tracing the roots of solar energy, we observe a timeline rich with innovation and discovery:

7th Century B.C.: Ancients harnessed the sun’s power through passive solar designs for heating and lighting fires, showcasing an early understanding of what is solar energy and its potential uses. This foundational knowledge set the stage for centuries of solar exploration and utilisation (A Brief History of Solar Energy).

1767: Horace Bénédicte de Saussure, a Swiss physicist, created the first solar collector, an important precursor to modern solar panel technology.

1839: The pivotal discovery of the photovoltaic effect by French scientist Edmond Becquerel marked a significant milestone in the history of solar energy. This phenomenon, where light is converted directly into electricity, underpins the operation of today’s solar cells.

1860s: Inspired by Becquerel’s work, August Mouchot successfully registered patents for solar-powered engines, extending the practical applications of solar energy.

1883: Charles Fritts developed the first solar cells made from selenium wafers, although with an efficiency of only about one per cent. This was a monumental step forward, demonstrating how solar produces electricity, albeit at a nascent stage.

1888: Edward Weston’s patents for solar cells (U.S. Patent 389,124 and U.S. Patent 389,425) showcased the potential for converting the sun’s radiant energy into electrical or mechanical energy.

1894: Russian scientist Aleksandr Stoletov built upon the photoelectric effect to create the first solar cell, further advancing the field.

1954: The genesis of modern solar technology began with Bell Laboratories. They developed the first practical silicon solar cell, boasting an efficiency of around 6%. This breakthrough laid the groundwork for the photovoltaic technology that powers our world today (U.S. Department of Energy).

1959: Just five years after Bell Labs’ innovation, Hoffman Electronics manufactured the first commercial solar cell with an efficiency of 10%. This was a pivotal moment, doubling the efficiency of solar cells and enhancing their commercial viability.

Space Age Solar:

vanguard satellite

1958: The Vanguard I satellite was powered by solar panels, marking the first use of photovoltaic technology in space. This historic application underscored the reliability and potential of solar power in even the most challenging environments.

1963: A significant leap in solar technology occurred when Sharp Corporation produced a viable photovoltaic module. This marked the beginning of the mass production of solar panels, signalling a shift towards widespread adoption and utility.

1964 & 1966: NASA’s Nimbus spacecraft and the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory continued this legacy, using solar panels to sustain long-duration missions.

1973: “Solar One,” the first solar building, was constructed, integrating solar thermal and solar photovoltaic power, showcasing the versatility and potential of solar energy in architectural design.

1974: The Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1974 represented a commitment by the U.S. government to support the advancement and marketability of solar energy, a significant endorsement for the industry.

The History of Solar Energy – The Energy Crisis and Solar Power

1973 -1977: The global energy crisis led to increased interest and investment in alternative energy sources, including solar power. This period saw governments and private sectors boosting funding for solar research, aiming to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The cost of solar cells fell to under $20 per watt, down from $100 per watt in 1975, making solar energy more accessible to a broader market.

Solar-Powered Aircrafts Throughout History

Paul MacCready solar challenger

1981: Paul MacCready who devoted his life to developing more efficient transportation vehicles that could “do more with less”made history by constructing the Solar Challenger, the very first aircraft to be powered by solar energy. The plane’s wings carried 16,128 solar cells yielding a maximum solar power of 3,800 watts. He piloted this groundbreaking plane across the English Channel from France to the U.K.

Image of the Solar Challenger

pathfinder solar plane

1998:Fast forward to 1998, the remote-controlled solar aircraft named “Pathfinder” achieved an impressive altitude record, soaring to 80,000 feet. However, NASA surpassed this achievement in 2001, reaching an astounding 96,000 feet with their non-rocket aircraft. Then, in 2016, Bertrand Piccard made a significant milestone by completing the world’s first zero-emissions flight using Solar Impulse 2, which remains the largest and most powerful solar-powered aircraft to date.

Image of the Pathfinder 

Resurgence of Solar Energy: The History from 1985 to 1997

1985: Solar energy experiences a resurgence as research and development efforts intensify with a focus on improving efficiency and reducing costs.

1989: The world’s first solar-powered aircraft, “Solar Challenger,” successfully completes a flight across the English Channel, showcasing the potential of solar energy for transportation.

1991: The Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) is renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to reflect its expanded focus on various renewable energy sources, including solar.

1995: Solar panels become more widely accessible as advancements in manufacturing processes lead to reduced production costs.

1997: The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, brings increased attention to solar energy as a sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

The History of Solar Energy Into the New Millennium

2000: The introduction of thin-film solar cells offered a lower-cost alternative to traditional silicon photovoltaic cells, though with slightly reduced efficiency. This technology allowed for more flexible applications of solar panels.

2006: The inception of the Solar Impulse project, which aimed to circumnavigate the globe in a solar-powered aeroplane, showcasing the potential of solar energy in aviation and promoting renewable energy worldwide.

2010: The launch of the California Valley Solar Ranch, one of the world’s largest solar photovoltaic power plants at the time, signifying the scale-up of solar energy production to meet large-scale electricity demands.

2016: Researchers at The University of South Wales achieved a record-breaking 34.5% efficiency for solar cells, pushing the boundaries of how efficiently solar energy can be harnessed.

2018: Introduction of bifacial solar panels, capable of capturing sunlight from both sides, increasing overall energy generation compared to traditional single-faced solar panels.

2020: Researchers achieved a new benchmark by developing solar cells with over 47% efficiency under concentrated light in a laboratory setting. This milestone represents the ongoing potential for solar power to become even more efficient and cost-effective.

2021: A remarkable 168 GW of new solar PV capacity was installed globally, underscoring the rapid growth and adoption of solar energy around the world.

The continuous advancements in solar technology, from ancient concepts to modern high-efficiency cells, reflect an ongoing quest to optimize the use of this abundant and clean energy source. As we look to the future, innovative solar cell designs and increased efficiency promise to further revolutionise the way we harness the sun’s power, making it more accessible and affordable for all.


Recent Solar Innovations

2023 marked a significant milestone in the evolution of solar panel technology, with several groundbreaking advancements that promise to reshape the future of solar energy production.

Breakthrough in Energy Efficiency

Solar power cells surpassed a critical milestone of 30% energy efficiency, thanks to innovations by multiple research groups worldwide. This achievement is considered revolutionary, potentially accelerating the rollout of more efficient and cost-effective solar power solutions.

Perovskite-Silicon Tandem Cells

The introduction of perovskite-silicon “tandem” cells emerged as a pivotal innovation. By adding a layer of perovskite atop the silicon layer, these cells capture a broader spectrum of sunlight, significantly boosting energy absorption and efficiency. This hybrid approach has propelled solar cells past the previous efficiency ceiling of 29% for silicon-based cells

Global Research and Development

Research teams around the globe, including prominent figures like Prof Stefaan De Wolf at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia, and groups led by Prof Steve Albrecht at the Helmholtz Center Berlin, and Dr Xin Yu Chin at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, have been at the forefront of these advancements. Their efforts have achieved efficiencies up to 32.5% and 31.25%, respectively, for tandem cells.

Commercialization & Scale-up Challenges

While these high-efficiency tandem cells have shown promising results in small sizes (1cm by 1cm), the challenge remains to scale them up to commercial cell sizes (15cm squares or larger). UK company Oxford PV announced a record 28.6% efficiency for a commercial-size cell, indicating progress in making these technologies viable for widespread use

Sustainability & Market Impact 

The advancements in solar panel technology in 2023 not only promise to make solar electricity even cheaper but also accelerate its deployment to combat global heating. This leap in efficiency could be a game-changer in meeting the increasing global demand for clean, sustainable energy.

These developments underscore a significant leap towards achieving higher efficiency, sustainability, and broader applications of solar technology, reinforcing solar power’s role in the global transition to renewable energy.

Surging Solar: The Rise of Solar Energy in the UK - Recent Trends and Statistics

The UK’s growing interest in solar energy is truly remarkable and shows its strong commitment to clean and sustainable energy sources. As of 2023, the UK has an impressive total solar power capacity of 15 gigawatts from over 1.3 million installations. This is a significant rise of 6.4% (or 911 megawatts) since May 2022. This increase highlights the UK’s effort to boost its use of renewable energy. Every month in the same year, over 17,000 homes decided to install solar panels, demonstrating the country’s enthusiasm for adopting solar energy.

The fact that solar energy accounted for only 2.3% of the UK’s renewable energy share of electricity generation in the first quarter of 2023 highlights the immense potential for further growth in this sector. Additionally, the UK’s ambitious target to reach 40GW of installed solar capacity by 2030 underscores the government and the public’s increasing reliance on solar power as a key component of the country’s energy mix, further solidifying its role in the UK’s strategy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Efficiency and Affordability

Presently, standard commercially available solar panels boast efficiencies between 15% to 20%, with some advanced models surpassing 20%. This dramatic increase in efficiency is a testament to the continuous innovation within the field.

The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules has plummeted by 82% since 2010. This steep decline in prices has not only made solar power more accessible but also a financially sound choice for energy consumers worldwide.

Integration and Versatility

Today’s solar panels are not just confined to rooftops. Thanks to advancements in integration and versatility, solar technology can now be seamlessly incorporated into building facades, windows, and even clothing. This evolution reflects a future where solar energy is interwoven into the very fabric of our daily lives. As we continue to chronicle the history of solar panels, these milestones are not just markers of technological progress; they are the stepping stones to a future powered by clean, sustainable energy. The story of how we harness the sun’s power is ongoing, and as we ask ourselves, “When was the first solar panel made?” or “Who discovered solar energy?”, we realise that the answers lie not just in the past, but in the innovations yet to come.

solar panel sun shining

The Future of Solar Panel Technology

Thinking about how solar energy has changed over time is like watching an amazing journey from simple sun-catching lenses to super-smart solar panels that can catch a lot of sunlight and turn it into electricity. This story shows us how people have always wanted to use the sun’s never-ending power. Along the way, they’ve come up with some really cool inventions to make the most of the sun, all while trying to take good care of our planet. We’ve seen how important solar energy is in helping us live in a cleaner and safer world.

Looking ahead, we’re standing at the edge of discovering even more ways to use solar energy. Every new idea or invention reminds us of the smart and creative people who came before us and helps prepare the path for even more discoveries. The story of solar energy isn’t finished yet; it’s still going on and helping to light up our future. This story is exciting because it’s about making our world a better place by using the power of the sun, which has been shining down on us for a very long time.

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