Do You Know Your Solar Power History?
We live in a fast paced world — in a time when new technologies and devices are introduced on a near daily basis — it is truly starting to look like “the future”. Although we do not have teleportation or hovercrafts just yet, these ideas are no longer just topics for television or sci-fi novels. Like much of technology, solar power has also boomed in popularity and growth in the last few years; 17 percent of all solar projects in the U.S. were installed in the first half of 2015 alone, with a new project installed every 2 minutes. With all of the incredible advances we see in technology today, it is easy to overlook the foundations on which those advances were built upon. Learning about those foundations, however, helps create a deeper appreciation for the hard work and dedication, given both by the individuals who built them as well as those who built upon them.
The idea that the sun could be used as a source of electricity dates back to almost 200 years ago. In 1839, 19-year-old French physicist, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, first discovered that electric currents could be produced in certain materials when exposed to light.
In 1876, William Grylls Adams, Professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s College in London, along with his student, Richard Evans Day, then discovered that selenium produced electricity from light at a 1 to 2 percent efficiency.
In 1954, Bell Laboratories announced that they had used silicon to create a solar cell that was more efficient than those using selenium. From this project, they created the world’s first photovoltaic cell, which is the first device to convert sunlight into electrical power that could be used to power other devices.
It was after this point that the possibilities for solar power production really picked up. Just four years later, in 1958, 3 satellites (Vanguard I, Explorer II, and Vanguard II) were launched into space with systems powered by silicon solar cells. 15 years later, the first U.S. space station became powered by solar cells. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, taking the lead in the U.S. energy crisis, installed solar panels on the White House, which led to a newfound interest in solar panels by the American people.
Before this point in history, however, solar energy was still something unattainable to the everyday American due to its high price. Although the cost of silicon PV cells in 1977 was $76.70/watt, the price went down dramatically in the years after. In fact, just a short 10 years later, silicon PV prices were down to $10/watt. The prices have fluctuated since then, but they have steadily decreased to under $1.00/watt for residential photovoltaic cells.
Seeing the amount of progress that has been made in the past 200 years, but especially in the last 40 years, is exciting. Knowing that the 21st century is one of change and progression, and knowing that we now have access to affordable clean energy sources that are constantly improving, we are at ease to know that our future will be a bright one.