A Brief History Solar Energy

A Brief History of Solar Energy - Solar Energy in History Through 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.

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 and explores when solar energy was invented.

The History of Solar Energy Began With Magnification

Ancient Civilizations from the 7th century B.C. realized 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 sun's energy really 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 needing 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. 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, bearing a resemblance to the current solar collectors. 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.

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 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.

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 the commercialization of solar panels, ultimately making them suitable for domestic use.

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 continued to gather momentum, the wide possibilities of using solar across many different applications became more feasible. In turn. creating 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 as a result of 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. Solar photovoltaics are forecast to meet 4% of global electricity generation by 2023, according to the International Energy Agency.

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 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 and convenience and 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.

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

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Pin Image Portrait A Brief History of Solar Energy
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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