A Brief History of Solar Energy

Modern solar energy is something that many of us are now familiar with. Energy companies, homeowners, and businesses are increasingly harnessing the power of the sun to produce electricity using solar power. Despite this, many people might not realise that the history of solar power dates back many centuries. In fact, the use of solar energy dates back as far as the 7th century B.C. However, it is now a mainstream technology that is constantly improving. So, this brief history of solar energy is designed to highlight how humans have made use of this fast-growing renewable energy type.

The History of Solar Energy Began With Magnification

Ancient Civilizations from the 7th century B.C realised that they could use solar energy and glass to light fires. While this is a million miles from turning solar energy into electricity, it shows that we have long had a fascination with the sun and its power. This energy heated homes and bathhouses as windows were strategically placed so that the sunlight would heat the water or water tanks. This is where our love for and ability to harness the energy of the sun really began.

The Photovoltaic Effect in the 19th Century

Scientist, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839. It was during this era that the first patents for solar collectors became apparent. The scientist continued the process of experimenting with electrolytic cells.

From here he discovered exposing more cells to light produced more electricity. In 1876, science made great strides in solar energy. Crucially, scientists discovered that selenium could convert light into electricity without the need for heat.

Following this, just 7 years later in 1883, they developed the first solar cell with selenium. This paved the way for further progress. In 1891, inventors patented the first commercial solar water heater. Herewith, laying the real foundations of solar power and energy that we see today.

Climax Solar Water Heater - One of the first commercial solar water heaters in history
This advertisement shows Charles Kemp’s patented solar water heater from 1891. The Climax occupies a place in the history of solar energy as the first commercial solar water heater. This simple device used black water tanks in an insulated box to trap the suns heat and in turn heat the water.

The Creation of the Solar Cell

Inventors produced the very first solar collector In 1908, bearing a resemblance to the solar collectors commonly used today. The world experienced a shortage of energy during World War 2. In turn, leading to an increase in passive solar buildings in the USA. This eventually led to the creation of the first silicon photovoltaic cell in 1954. In contrast to the previous use of Selenium, this had the ability to generate enough power to run electrical equipment.

At this early stage of use, the solar efficiency was only 4%. Far lower than the 20% we see today. However, this proved the catalyst for more solar-powered devices becoming readily available on the market.

Additionally, solar technologies began heating water in commercial properties.

At this point, solar cells started to become an integral aspect of the design of satellites. Solar still powers satellites today.

In 1970, things began to change again. Engineers developed silicon solar cells,  a cheaper alternative. This resulted in the commercialisation of solar panels which ultimately made them suitable for domestic use.

As the technology continued to gather momentum, the widespread and possibilities of using solar across many different applications became more feasible. In turn. creating a whole new level of possibilities. Solar could now provide energy to power cars and even aeroplanes. Meanwhile, solar farms began to increase in popularity as a result of capacity to generate electricity on a larger scale.

Photo voltaic solar cells
Forecasts predict renewables share of demand in meeting global energy requirements to grow one-fifth in the next 5 years to reach 12.4% in 2023. Solar photovoltaics are forecast to meet 4% of global electricity generation by 2023 according to the International Energy Agency.

A Solar Generation

As non-renewable fossil fuels and other forms of energy are causing problems for our planet, solar power has become more important than ever before. Since the turn of the 21st century, when the first commercial applications in the history of solar energy were seen scientists have been continuously developing solar technology1 so it offers more efficiency, convenience and can meet the energy needs of communities, homeowners and businesses.

Countries such as Australia are now making it their goal to become reliant on solar power with the country becoming 50% reliant on renewables by 2025, proving just how far solar technology has come. On the whole, the aim is to make solar power affordable and as accessible as other energy sources so everyone has the opportunity to use energy that is greener, safer and renewable.

Jason Blackeye

Further Inspiration:

Sources and References:

1Toward Cost-Effective Solar Energy Use. Nathan S. Lewis. Beckman Institute and Kavli Nanoscience Institute, 210 Noyes Laboratory, 127-72, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA. Science 09 Feb 2007: Vol. 315, Issue 5813, pp. 798-801 DOI: 10.1126/science.1137014

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  1. Conversion of sun’s energy into electrical energy is excellent thus helping the society and the environment.