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Solar Power: Technological Advances throughout History

when was solar energy first used

More people are exploring better alternatives to reverse climate change. Switching and using clean energy from sunlight is a good way to help the environment. Although it may sound new to some, solar power is available for a long time now.

Learn more about the history of solar energy by finding out who discovered it and who invented solar panels.

History of Solar Panels

Solar Energy in the Past

The history of solar energy goes back to the 7th century B.C. People used glass, mirrors, and shields to make fire and light torches. Sunrooms were created to use the natural heat from the sun wherein they would build rooms and place windows facing the south to capture the winter sun.

Discovering the Principle behind Solar Energy

During the 1800s, this type of technology started with Edmond Becquerel, the person who discovered the photovoltaic effect. The French scientist was examining cells out of metal wires in a solution. He then learned that exposure to sunlight created an electric current.

The Invention of Solar Panels

First Photovoltaic Cell

The first instance of inventing the first solar cells started with Willoughby Smith. He detected that selenium is a photoconductor. Afterwhich, William Adams and Richard Day discovered that it can produce electricity. With the research, Charles Fritts was able to produce the first solar cell out of selenium wafers.

Technological Advancements

Through the research of Albert Einstein about the photoelectric effect, solar cells improved. Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson from Bell Labs were the next to innovate it. They created the first silicon photovoltaic cell.

From the mid-1950s to the 2000s, the solar industry has grown. Solar PV was being utilized in different fields and applications. Technology has also been more efficient and cost-effective through the advancements.

Modern Solar Panels

Modern solar technology is more dynamic wherein solar manufacturers also produce smaller products.

How they work is that when the light hits the cells in a solar panel, it causes them to release electrons. When it hits other compounds, more electrons are released. These electrons flow through a circuit that produces electricity.

Major Events for Solar Energy

Historical Cost of Solar Panels

Solar costs started expensively. Most people would prefer alternatives since its cheaper. But over time, the prices went down. Back then it would cost around $300/watts. Now, it can cost only $0.50/watt.

Breakthrough in Solar Conversion Efficiency

The modern solar cell has experienced many breakthroughs throughout the years. Hoffman Electronics improved its efficiency from 8% to 14% from 1957-1960 while the University of South Wales (USW) improved silicon cells’ efficiency to 20%. National Renewable Energy Laboratory and SpectroLab Inc. got it up to 33.3% but USW increased it once again to 34.4% in 2016.

There have been newer developments that are predicted to have massive conversion gains. Some studies involve using invisible light for electricity.

New material is also discovered that could start another generation of panels. It is called perovskites and it is theorized to be more efficient and stable than the silicon solar cell.

First Solar Residence

The first residence that was able to directly convert sunlight to electricity and heat for domestic use was built in 1973, called Solar One. The University of Delaware integrated panels on the roof of a house called Solar One. These were able to supply power throughout the day and night.

Solar Energy in White House

In 1978, Jimmy Carter became a believer in renewable energy and sustainability during his presidency when he started looking for ways to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. A year later, he ordered federal agencies to “aim their efforts at making the most use of renewable resources.” In 1979, he had a hot water storage tank installed on the roof of the White House that relied on 32 solar panels.

Solar Panels in Outer Space

Solar panels have been used since the late 1940s, but the use of solar panels in outer space during the 1950s-60s is one of the most significant advances in power generation. Solar panels were not just used to feed satellites and power radios, but also other aircraft and spacecraft such as interplanetary probes and rovers.

Solar-Powered Airplanes

Solar Impulse 2 is a solar-powered aircraft that can fly around the world without refueling. This aircraft is the largest and most powerful ever made. It has set several records such as longest duration flight (5 days), highest altitude (8,848 m) and longest distance (29,000 km).


Does solar power help global warming?

Yes, it does. Using this type of energy rather than fossil fuel will help reduce global warming. This doesn’t emit any greenhouse gasses that cause global temperature to rise.

What are the pros and cons of solar?

The pros are:
• Renewable, sustainable, and reliable energy source
• Can generate electricity and heat
Reduces electricity bills
• Very manageable and low maintenance.
• There are always technological advancements

The cons are:
• Installation is expensive
• Requires to be stored in large batteries
• Requires space

What are the three types of solar energy?

The three types of solar energy are solar thermal, photovoltaic solar energy, and thermodynamic energy. Solar thermal energy is the conversion of sunlight into heat or thermal energy. Photovoltaic solar cells convert sunlight into electricity and thermodynamic systems use the heat absorbed by a fuel (such as water) to create steam which drives an engine to produce electricity.

Do solar panels die?

A solar panel won’t last forever but with proper maintenance, it can last up to 25 years. They have varying degradation rates depending on the manufacturer.


Solar energy has been available and utilized ever since. It was only when Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect that photovoltaics evolved. There were a lot of people involved in its brief history, but who invented solar panels?

Some say it is Fritt. Others say it is the researches from Bell Lab. One thing is for sure both are significant to the industry’s development.

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