The History Of Solar

SOLAR panels have a long history are still regarded by many as new-tech.

That’s understandable, given the product’s long-term association with the Space Age and the exciting advances in solar power technology made in the 21st century.

But the reality is that solar power was first being explored by scientists within years of the young Queen Victoria being crowned in the first half of the 19th century.

As far back as 1839, French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect – the realisation that certain materials generate a current when exposed to light.

The first cell was developed in the 1880s by American inventor Charles Fritts and the commercial potential was quickly grasped by the German industrialist Ernst Werner von Siemens – although developing it was beyond their ability at the time.

The science of solar had to wait almost another 50 years before taking its next major step forward.

That came in 1931 when German engineer Bruno Lange developed a photocell which used silver selenide rather than copper oxide.

Although it had an efficiency of just one percent, it was an important leap forward technically.

And it demonstrated solar power collection could be enhanced further than previously believed.

In the 1950s though, solar power really began to come into its own.

That was when groundbreaking work by Russell Ohl was taken further by a trio of researchers – Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Daryl Chaplin.

They created the first silicon solar cell in 1954 after Pearson realised the use of silicon could improve efficiency from one percent to almost six percent.

Such cells cost a fortune, but they had just become a viable source of power.

They were used on spacecraft in the 1950s and 1960s where their ability to power space technology seemed to point the way forward.

It was economics though, as much as science, which was to drive solar.

The initial interest in solar, even in the 1860s, was driven by the fear that coal resources were finite and would eventually run out.

Those fears took a back seat in the early decades of the  20th century when coal and petroleum seemed plentiful.

It was the economic consternation caused by the oil embargo of 1973 and the energy crisis of 1979 which forced a rethink of energy policies across the globe and brought solar to the fore.

Greater research into solar was done worldwide and after stop-start progress during the 70s and 80s, the growth of solar power both commercially and domestically, has been steadily on the rise.

Today there are over 30 significant solar panel manufacturers around the world.

Countries such as Germany, USA, Japan and China have the most solar manufacturers, reflecting their leadership of the market.

And across the planet, there are several types of panel being produced with varying efficiencies and different technologies just like there are many different types of car.

There have been double-digit increases in its use in every year of the 21st century. In 2013 worldwide capacity stood at 139GW with Germany having the most installations and Italy the highest percentage of electricity generated by solar but there have been big steps forward since then and China, in particular, is on the rise in an eye-catching way.

The International Energy Agency predicted in 2010 that by 2050, global solar PV production could reach 3,000GW, (compared to 2013’s 139GW), or 11 percent of the planet’s projected energy needs.

Some though have suggested that beyond the midway point of this century, solar could be producing up to half the world’s energy needs.

In the last half-century, progress has been substantial in the industry to the point where panel efficiency is now in the 20+ percent range and there are manufacturing companies worldwide.

Greater panel efficiencies can only follow, which will increase the viability of solar installations in millions of more homes.

The next big breakthrough is battery storage for domestic installs becoming as economically viable as they already are in commercial plants.

Now that that is happening, homes will be able to use solar energy they have stored throughout the day, during the hours of darkness.

And that will provide yet another massive boost to the appeal of an already appealing energy source.

Sources:, and various.

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Solar Panels and sky