A Brief History Solar Energy
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A Brief History of Solar Energy - Solar Energy Beginnings to Today

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 realize that the history of solar power dates back many centuries.

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 used this fast-growing renewable energy type and explore when solar energy was invented.

The History of Solar Energy Began With Magnification

Ancient Civilizations from the 7th century B.C. realized they could harness the sun's rays and glass to light fires. While this is a million miles from turning solar energy into electricity, it shows that we have long been fascinated 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 sun's energy began.

The Photovoltaic Effect in the 19th Century

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

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

Following this, just 7 years later, in 1883, they developed the first solar cell with selenium. This early innovation in the solar energy timeline paved the way for further progress. In 1891, inventors patented the first commercial solar water heater. They were, 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 sun's heat and, in turn, heat the water.

The Creation of the Solar Cell

Inventors produced the very first solar collector In 1908, resembling the current solar collectors. The world experienced a shortage of energy during World War 2. In turn, this led 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 could generate enough power to run electrical equipment.

In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite powered its radio communication with a single-watt solar panel - which ultimately led the way to broader use of solar panels in space.

At this early use stage, the solar efficiency of the first solar cells was only 4%. Far lower than the 20%+ typical of the modern solar cell. However, this proved the catalyst for more solar-powered devices becoming readily available.

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.

Silicon solar cells

In 1970, things began to change again. Engineers developed silicon solar cells,  a cheaper alternative. Around this time, the US created the Solar Energy Research Institute to further the development of solar energy production. Other countries followed suit, and the developments resulted in commercializing solar panels, ultimately making them suitable for domestic use.

Similarly, the Energy Tax Act of 1978 played a notable role in the evolution of solar energy. This legislation encouraged the broader adoption of solar power by offering tax credits for those willing to invest in this renewable energy source.

In 1999, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory partnered with SpectroLab Inc. to create a solar cell with 33.3% energy efficiency. Later, in 206, the University of South Wales beat it, claiming the world's most efficient solar cell with 34.5% efficiency.

As the technology gathered momentum, the wide possibilities of using solar across many applications became more feasible. In turn, this created a whole new level of possibilities. Solar cell technology could now provide energy to power cars and even airplanes.

Meanwhile, solar farms and large-scale photovoltaic systems began to increase in popularity due to their capacity to generate electricity on a larger scale.

Today, several different types of solar energy make up the solar landscape.

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. According to the International Energy Agency, solar photovoltaics are forecast to meet 4% of global electricity generation by 2023.

Governmental incentives for solar generation

In 2005, the U.S. passed the Energy Policy Act that, for the first time, provided incentives in the form of 30% tax credits for solar energy installations.

The UK government paid solar producers for their energy up until 2019. This initiative called the Feed-in Tariff, reimbursed electricity generation shared back to the grid.

A Solar Generation

As non-renewable fossil fuels and other forms of energy are causing problems for our planet, solar power has become more critical 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. Hence, it offers more efficiency and convenience. It can meet the energy needs of communities, homeowners, and businesses.

Read more: Advantages and disadvantages of solar energy

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.

Overall, the aim is to lower solar costs and make solar power affordable and as accessible as other energy sources. Hence, everyone has the opportunity to use energy that is greener, safer, and more renewable.

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
Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash
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